MONROVIA: European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) in Liberia says the National Elections Commission (NEC) has demonstrated its capacity to conduct the first fully Liberian-owned elections since the departure of UNMIL, and noted that the Election Day was calm and that the Mission noticed organizational improvements of the process since the first round which was held on October 10, 2023; H. Matthew Turry reports.
Addressing a press conference held yesterday in Monrovia to present the second Preliminary Statement of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM), Deputy Chief Observer Jarek Domański who highlighted these achievement of NEC on 14 November when Liberians voted in the run-off to elect their president for the next six years underlined, “Our 85 election observers reported from 326 polling places in rural and urban areas in all 15 counties and 63 out of 73 districts,” and explained that the EU EOM observers assessed the conduct of the voting process in observed polling stations as very good.
“Procedural irregularities were reduced in the run-off also, thanks to a refresher training program for the polling personnel organized by the National Elections Commission,” the EU Election Observer Mission outlined and intimated that the 20-day run-off campaign was largely peaceful and quiet as both candidates focused mostly on announcing endorsements from first round unsuccessful presidential and legislative candidates. “As in the first round, it was a personality-driven campaign with a notable lack of issue-based activities or debates,” the Mission observed.
“Freedom of the press and of opinion continued to be respected during the run-off campaign period” the EU EOM maintained, but added that the state-owned media continued to offer most of their news coverage to the incumbent. “Closer to the run-off date, derogatory speech, inflammatory language and misleading content intensified in social media. While political freedoms of candidates and supporters were largely respected, the use of state resources by the ruling party continued to distort the level playing field,” the EU Mission noted.
“I appeal to both candidates and their supporters to show restraint and wait patiently for the announcement of the results. Should anyone wish to dispute them, they should do so peacefully, according to the established legal procedures”, said the Head of the Delegation of the European Parliament, Mr Leopoldo López Gil.
Said the Deputy Chief Observer “A significant number of citizen and international observers continued their activities in between the rounds and on run-off election day, contributing to the transparency of the process. The EU EOM values the contribution from all stakeholders involved in the election process.”
The Mission said further that it will present a Final Report with recommendations to the Liberian authorities and public opinion at a later stage, adding that “The EU EOM was invited by the Liberian authorities to observe the 2023 General Elections and has been present in Liberia since 27 August.”
In total, the EU EOM said it deployed 85 observers from all 27 EU Member States, Canada and Norway, across the country to assess the whole electoral process against international obligations and commitments for democratic elections as well as the laws of Liberia, and pointed out that a delegation of the European Parliament, headed by Leopoldo López Gil, MEP, also joined the mission.
According to a summary of its first preliminary statement published on 12 October 2023, the Mission accentuated that on 14 November 2023, Liberians participated in a run-off to elect the president for the next six years, and indicated that these elections were the first post-conflict general elections solely organized by the Liberian institutions. “During the interval between the two rounds, the campaign was largely peaceful and low-key. However, tensions grew towards the end of the campaign and isolated incidents of election violence were reported days before the Election Day,” the EU Election Observation Mission indicated.
The National Elections Commission, the EU Mission said, efficiently managed the preparations of the second round and improved its public communication. Freedom of press and of opinion continued to be respected but state-owned media offered most of their news coverage to the incumbent, emphasizing that closer to the run-off date, derogatory speech, inflammatory language and misleading messages in social media intensified.
“While political freedoms of candidates and supporters were largely respected, the use of state resources by the ruling party and the lack of oversight of campaign finance regulations by the NEC continued to distort the level playing field,” the European Union Observation detected, saying however, “Election Day was generally calm, although a few minor incidents involving physical violence occurred across the country.
“The polling proceeded smoothly and orderly and was assessed positively as well-organized in the overwhelming majority of polling places observed. Voting procedures were generally followed with only few procedural irregularities noted, primarily caused by confusion over the inking procedure,” the EU EOM further said.
The Mission noted that the voting process was marked by numerous instances of party agents keeping track of voters’ data, raising concerns over undue influence or intimidation of voters. “The counting was mostly conducted efficiently, accurately and in a transparent manner, but important reconciliation steps were often omitted in an effort to speed up the process,” the Mission further indicated reiterating that following the 10 October presidential election where no candidates reached the constitutional requirement of 50 percent plus one vote, the run-off was called by the NEC on 24 October.
“The first round brought a very tight result as George Weah, leader of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), received 43.83 per cent and Joseph Boakai, leader of the main opposition Unity Party (UP), received 43.44 per cent of the votes – a margin of some 7,000 votes, the closest margins observed in recent Liberian elections.”
The observation summary stated that NEC efficiently managed the election preparations for the second round and improved its public communication, but said however, that the atmosphere of low stakeholders’ confidence remained.
“In an effort to reduce procedural irregularities in the run-off, the NEC organized refresher training programmes for lower-level personnel. Their civic and voter education campaign remained low-key, with more in-person community-based activities observed about a week before Election Day,” the EU Election Observer Mission said.
The Mission continued: “A significant number of citizen and international observers continued their activities in between the rounds and on runoff election day, contributing to the transparency of the process. A few days prior to Election Day, serious claims aiming to undermine the integrity and credibility of domestic and international observer groups were raised by both contesting sides”.
The campaign was largely peaceful, the EU Mission noted, but added, “However, tensions grew towards Election Day and isolated incidents of election violence were reported. Parties could freely exercise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and movement. Civil society, traditional and religious leaders were active in their support of a peaceful election process.”
The EU EOM further observed mainly small-scale campaign activities, and also saw the lack of enforcement of campaign finance regulations continued to fail to ensure transparency and a level playing field. “The CDC had significantly more financial resources than the UP. The EU EOM observed directly the use of state resources by the incumbent in terms of government and local government staff campaigning during working hours, and the use of government buildings and vehicles. In some instances, government institutions were actively involved in the campaign.”
The Mission spoke about freedoms of expression and of the press, which they said, continued to be respected. But political patronage, low salaries, and a lack of diversified funding streams continued to negatively impact on the quality and diversity of the messages transmitted to the public, they maintained.
The Mission said out of the time attributed to political contestants by state-owned broadcaster Liberia Broadcasting System which operates radio station ELBC and television channel LNTV, 70 and 84 per cent respectively was allocated to the CDC while the Unity Party received just under five per cent of airtime on LNTV during the prime-time hours.
The campaign in social media, the Observer Mission said, was dominated by narratives on endorsements and mutual accusations of betrayal and tribalism between politicians as well as public figures supporting either CDC or UP, including widespread derogatory speech; adding that Facebook was the most used platform for online political discussions and campaigning for the run-off, marred by instances of dehumanization rhetoric and fabricated content, which targeted electoral contestants and media figures.
Positively, Liberian leading fact-checking initiatives promptly verified messages on electoral fraud and election-related violence, also using their networks in the regions, which facilitated voters’ trust in the electoral process and their more informed choice, according to the EU EOM.
“While only one appeal was filed for the presidential race, some 60 post-election complaints were filed with NEC magistrates across the country, alleging malpractices and irregularities related to the senatorial and House of Representative elections. Many complaints were dismissed for lack of evidence while several others for lack of legal standing. Several hearings at the NEC level are still ongoing, the EU EOM reported.