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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

Liberia Court Clears Path to Presidential Runoff

Liberia’s Supreme Court upheld the results of October’s first-round presidential elections, paving way for a runoff expected to bring the West African nation’s first democratic transfer of power since 1944.
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Nicholas Bariyo

Liberia’s Supreme Court upheld the results of October’s first-round presidential elections, paving way for a runoff expected to bring the West African nation’s first democratic transfer of power since 1944.

The Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed claims of widespread fraud by the third-place finisher of the Oct. 10 presidential election. Former soccer star George Weah won 39% of the vote, ahead of Joseph Nyumah Boakai, the deputy of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who gained 29%.

“There isn’t sufficient evidence to merit a rerun of the election,” Supreme Court Justice Philip Banks told the courtroom in the capital Monrovia.

Liberian presidential hopeful George Weah waves to people in Monrovia on Wednesday.Photo: hugh kinsella cunningham/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The ruling, which took Judge Banks nearly three hours to read out in court, opens the way to the final stage of a protracted electoral battle among a field of 20 candidates wanting to succeed Africa’s first woman president.

Opposition leader Charles Brumskine, who finished third in the vote, lodged a complaint with the electoral commission claiming the first round had been marred by the late opening of polls, lack of control over long voter lines, disorderly voting and fraud.

The Supreme Court ordered the National Elections Commission to investigate the allegations before finally dismissing them in its Thursday judgment.

International observers from European Union, the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute and regional bloc Economic Community of West African States declared the vote as largely free and fair.

Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, known to Liberians as Ma Ellen or Iron Lady, has been credited with ending a 14-year civil war that killed 250,000 people and displaced two million, and overcoming a punishing Ebola pandemic.

Her refusal to publicly back her vice president has splintered her Unity Party, some of whose members accused her of interfering with the election to help Mr. Weah. Her office has denied these allegations.

The drawn-out dispute could inflame political tensions in Africa’s oldest republic, which was founded in 1847 by freed slaves.

“The controversy will weaken whoever emerges as Liberia’s next president” said Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “For investors this means increased levels of uncertainty regarding Liberia’s direction of travel for the months to come.”

Voters in the country of 4.6 million people will now proceed to choose between 51-year-old Mr. Weah—who was FIFA’s World Player of the Year in 1995 and has served in the senate since 2014—and 72-year-old Mr. Boakai, commonly known as “Sleepy Joe” for his reputation for napping at public events.

Mr. Weah, who is representing the Coalition for Democratic Change, is running with Jewel Howard Taylor, the estranged wife of imprisoned former President Charles Taylor. He has campaigned on promises to fix the country’s broken health-care system and improve social services.

After October’s election, Mr. Weah won the backing of Prince Johnson, a former rebel commander who was filmed drinking beer as his followers tortured and executed then-President Samuel Doe in 1990.

The winner will have to reignite an economy that has registered zero growth over the past three years amid the Ebola outbreak and falling commodity prices. The International Monetary Fund urged for a quick resolution of the political standoff in a “manner consistent with the democratic process” to minimize economic shocks.

Write to Nicholas Bariyo at nicholas.bariyo@wsj.com

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