By H. Matthew Turry
MONROVIA: European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) in Liberia says Liberian voters demonstrated commitment to the democratic process by participating in great numbers in the General Elections on Tuesday, October 10, 3023.
The Mission acknowledged that Liberians voted to elect president, vice-president, half of the Senate, and House of Representatives members and considered these elections the first post-conflict general elections solely organized by the Liberian institutions and stated at a press Conference yesterday at the Royal Hotel in Sinkor, that although the Election Day was generally calm and peaceful, there was “A vibrant campaign, in which fundamental freedoms were mostly respected.”
However, the mission indicated that the process was marred by the abundant use of state resources by the incumbency, distorting the level playing field,” and indicated that a well-handled electoral process took place in an atmosphere of mistrust.”
Accordingly, the EU EOM told the press conference that the Election Day showed Liberians’ democratic commitment which the Mission indicated was positively assessed by the observers. It however noted in spite of the high turnout, cumbersome procedures and their implementation slowed the conduct of polls.
“Election Day was generally calm and peaceful, with only isolated cases of incidents, mostly as a result of voters’ frustration due to the high turnout combined with slow processing of polling or late opening in some polling places, observed by EU EOM,” the Mission intimated.
The Mission maintained that due to logistical difficulties which hampered the distribution of election materials, several voting precincts in the south did not open and the voting was postponed to the following days.
“While the conduct of voting was generally evaluated as well-organized and smooth, the counting phase was assessed by EU observers less positively due to omission or incorrect implementation of several important procedural steps intended to ensure integrity of the count,” the EU EOM accentuated.
It said these shortcomings were mainly attributed to insufficient understanding of or non-adherence to the established procedures by the polling personnel. Significant presence of party and candidate agents and election observers contributed to transparency.
In a press release issued after the press conference, the EU EOM Chief Observer Andreas Schieder said the EU also established that the technical preparations and running of the Election Day were well administered with the press free to cover all sides of the campaign.
He highlighted that “Our 100 EU election observers reported from over 417 polling places in rural and urban areas in 14 out of 15 counties. The Election Day was calm and well conducted by the National Elections Commission and their staff nationwide.”
He said “Observation of Election Day showed Liberians’ democratic commitment and was positively assessed by the EU EOM observers which also noted that voters had to face long waiting time for voting. “The high turnout, the cumbersome procedures and their implementation slowed the conduct of polls,” he noted.
Also, the Head of Delegation of Members of European Parliament, Leopoldo Lopez Gil, added: “As democratically elected politicians, my Parliamentarian colleagues and I, urge all political leaders to accept the election’s outcome and peacefully address any disputes via the courts.”
He said, “It is also important to note that the results tabulation is still underway”, said the Chief Observer, adding that “the EU EOM will remain in the field to observe the process, including the handling of complaints and appeals.”
Mr. Schieder further underlined that on the overall, Liberia’s legal framework provides a reasonable basis for the conduct of democratic elections. However, it does not fully guarantee voters’ right to an effective legal remedy.
Campaign freedoms were, he said, mostly respected in terms of freedom of assembly, of speech, of opinion and of media despite some minor incidents; adding that unfortunately, the campaign was also characterized by a high level of monetization and bartering.
“The respect of campaign finance regulations by contestants is limited, and there is no enforcement of the regulations by NEC,” the Mission reported, adding that the EU EOM will present a Final Report with recommendations to the public at a later stage.
The EU EOM said the mission was invited by the Liberian authorities to observe the 2023 General Elections, and noted that based on its methodology of long-term, independent and impartial observation, bound by a strict code of conduct, the first members of the EU EOM arrived in Liberia on 27 August, adding, “The mission strictly adheres to its principle of non-interference.”
The statement of the EU EOM’S statement is its preliminary one delivered before the completion of the entire electoral process, which noted that critical stages remain to be covered, including tabulation of results which is in progress and adjudication of petitions.
The Mission says it is only in the position to comment on observations taken to date, and pointed out that it will publish a final report, including full analysis and recommendations for electoral reform in Liberia.
Overall, the legal framework for the elections provides a reasonable basis for the conduct of democratic elections; however, it does not fully guarantee voters’ right to an effective legal remedy. “In addition, it lacks important details while some of the provisions related to electoral disputes and electoral offences are ambiguous and contradictory,” the Mission said.
According to its preliminary report, some 25 pre-electoral complaints had been filed until now and were largely disposed in a timely manner, although election matters have been handled expeditiously, as the Supreme Court deferred the issuance of rulings on two appeals challenging the constitutionality of a NEC regulation for after Election Day.
“The election campaign was vibrant with a high number of campaign activities including several large rallies with the presence of presidential candidates. Campaign freedoms were mostly respected. Campaign finance regulations are overall in line with international standards, but their lack of enforcement failed to ensure transparency,” the Mission observed.
It said despite a compressed timeframe and serious logistical challenges, the election administration managed the preparations well and complied with most deadlines set in the 6 January election calendar (biometric voter registration, exhibition period, and candidate registration).
“However, some activities and decisions came late in the process and were not shared in a timely manner with the magisterial offices, adversely affecting the process,” the EU EOM noted, saying that the National Elections Commission missed the opportunity to address stakeholders’ concerns early enough with a view to increase public confidence through more effective and comprehensive communication and information sharing.
“Enhancing the EU Election Observation Mission in Liberia transparency of the process, the NEC accepted requests for observer accreditation beyond the set deadline, accrediting both domestic and international observers,” indicating that newly introduced biometric voter registration contributed to identification of multiple and suspect records in the voter registration roll.
“However, technical problems during registration and systemic procedural shortcomings weakened stakeholders’ confidence in its accuracy. The public sharing of the final registration roll (FRR) is good international practice, though, the fact that NEC shared the final copies of the FRR with the electoral contestants so close to the Election Day, attributing the prolonged processing to necessary encrypting of the files, further undermined the stakeholders’ trust in the registration data,” the Mission reports
The Mission says freedoms of expression and the press are respected in Liberia; political patronage, low salaries and a lack of diversified funding streams result in self-censorship which is the main issue in the media landscape today and has a negative impact on the quality and diversity of the messages transmitted to the public.
“Despite some minor incidents, most journalists feel free to cover the elections. Nearly 70 per cent of the time attributed to political contestants by state-owned broadcaster Liberia Broad-casting System, which operates radio station ELBC and television channel LNTV, was allocated to the CDC,” the EU Observer Mission said.
The EU EOM noted that Facebook is the predominant platform used by political parties and candidates for online campaigning, especially aiming at young voters and educated population. Absence of the regulatory framework for data protection and cyber security facilitates a fertile ground for instances of cyber bullying, usage of inflammatory language and incitement messages, discrediting of electoral contestants and sapping voters’ trust in the election process.
The EU EOM reported that on a positive note, three main fact-checking initiatives Local Voices Liberia (LVL)/Verify, The Stage Media and Campaigners against Misinformation and disinformation performed verification and scrutiny of political and electoral content in a timely manner, thus helping voters to make a better-informed choice.
“Election day was generally calm and peaceful, with only isolated cases of incidents, mostly as a result of voters’ frustration due to the high turnout combined with slow processing of polling or late opening in some polling places, observed by EU EOM,” the report maintained.
The report pointed out that due to logistical difficulties which hampered the distribution of election materials, several voting precincts in the south did not open and the voting was postponed to the following days, saying that while the conduct of voting was generally evaluated as well-organized and smooth.
“The counting phase was assessed by EU observers less positively due to omission or incorrect implementation of several important procedural steps intended to ensure integrity of the count. These shortcomings were mainly attributed to insufficient understanding of or non-adherence to the established procedures by the polling personnel. Significant presence of party and candidate agents and election observers contributed to transparency,” the report added.