The Chair of the Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC) Oscar Bloh says Article 83 (C) of the Constitution of Liberia, which confers judicial powers to the National Elections Commission, places additional and unnecessary burden on the NEC besides its original mandate of organizing and conducting elections in Liberia thus, a need for an amendment.Chairman Bloh made the observation during one-day stakeholder conference on Wednesday, 27 March in Monrovia.
The conference held under the theme: “Strengthening Liberia’s Democracy through Electoral Reform” brought together political parties, civic organizations, government, local and international partners to critically look at some portions of the electoral laws of the country.
The ECC Chair argues no matter how much changes are made within the New Elections Laws in terms of rules and responsibilities of Magistrates, Hearing Officers, Chief Hearing Officer and Board of Commissioners on electoral disputes, the NEC remains the court of first instance for all electoral petitions, adding that this means the Commission has to investigate allegations, hear witnesses, study the evidence, allow legal arguments and so forth before handling down ruling, which poses delay.
He notes that because of this, there will be persistent issue of conflict of interest in the adjudication of electoral petitions, including time for appeal process, adding that the appeal process in Chapter 6 of the New Elections Law cannot be changed until Article 83(C) of the Constitution of Liberia is amended.
Article 83 (C) of the Constitution reads, “The returns of the elections shall be declared by the Elections Commission not later than fifteen days after the casting of ballots. Any party or candidate who complains about the manner in which the elections were conducted or who challenges the results thereof shall have the right to file a complaint with the Elections Commission. Such complaint must be filed not later than seven days after the announcement of the results of the elections.
The Elections Commission shall, within thirty days of receipt of the complaint, conduct an impartial investigation and render a decision which may involve a dismissal of the complaint or a nullification of the election of a candidate. Any political party or independent candidate affected by such decision shall not later than seven days appeal against it to the Supreme Court.
The Elections Commission shall within seven days of receipt of the notice of appeal, forward all the records in the case to the Supreme Court, which not later than seven days thereafter, shall hear and make its determination. If the Supreme Court nullifies or sustains the nullification of the election of any candidate, for whatever reasons, the Elections Commission shall within sixty days of the decision of the Court conduct new elections to fill the vacancy. If the Court sustains the election of a candidate, the Elections Commission shall act to effectuate the mandate of the Court.”
Chairman Bloh notes that in the wake of weak political institutions and limited knowledge among Magistrates and Hearing Officers on the substantive and procedural aspects of the law, some consideration should be given for the establishment of an ad hoc body of judicial officials to hear complaints and determinations on presidential and legislative elections.
He points out that Articles 83 (A) mandates the NEC to hold general elections on the second Tuesday in October of each election year, observing that this time is at the peak of the rainy season, and given the country’s weak infrastructural, this provision poses serious logistical challenges for the NEC and financial burden on the political parties and candidates during campaign period.
Bloh suggests addressing this problem, the provision should be removed from the Constitution and instead, inserted in the New Electoral Law to allow some levels of flexibility that would enable the NEC to make adjustments in the conduct of elections.
He stresses that in order to increase the number of young voters, eligible voters who can demonstrate that they will be 18 years or more on the day of election should be allowed to register, not necessarily those who will turn 18 on the day of registration as voters.
He suggests that voter registration should start far advance at least one year before the date for general elections in order to meet procurement requirements and allow enough time for voters to register and to make any necessary corrections to the Election Roll where required.
He further observes that given human errors, inadequate laws and infrastructural challenges, it is difficult to organize and conduct perfect electoral process in the country, noting that every election creates opportunity for electoral stakeholders to reflect on the electoral process and to review the laws in order to identify challenges and take appropriate measures to address them.
Chairman Bloh: Elections do not guarantee democracy. At the same time, they are a fundamental requirement to give legitimacy to any democratic government.
He says while it is true that elections are grounded in laws, they are equally about perception, and that is why it is important at all times that electoral processes are perceived by voters to be impartial, inclusive, transparent and marked by integrity.
The ECC position is drawn from the 2017 Presidential Election, which results from the first round were heavily contested by one of the candidates, Cllr. Charles Walker Brumskine of the Liberty Party, and supported by other parties. From the NEC, the issues went before the Supreme Court of Liberia thus, delaying the runoff poll up to 26 December.
Meanwhile, several other speakers including ECOWAS representative, heads of civic organization, leaders of political parties, women and youth groups also call for repeal of election laws that are problematic to the conduct of free, fair, and credible elections in the country.
By Emmanuel Mondaye –Editing by Jonathan Browne