By: Jeptum Tuitoek
The Republic of Liberia’s presidential and parliamentary elections were held on 10 October 2023. As no presidential candidate received a majority of votes in the first round, a runoff election was held on 14 November 2023. Opposition leader Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party received a majority vote of 50.64% and was declared the winner, defeating the incumbent George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), who received 49.36%. In the parliamentary polls, Liberians set out to elect all members of the House of Representatives and half of the members of the Senate. The CDC obtained 25 of the 73 seats in the House of Representatives and 6 of the 15 seats in the Liberian Senate. The Unity Party secured 11 seats in the House of Representatives and one in the Liberian Senate. Independent candidates secured 19 House of Representatives seats and 6 Senate seats.
Following the narrow victory of Joseph Boakai of the Unity over George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), the CDC made strong allegations against the Unity Party Union, stating that they have “empirical evidence that the elections were stolen”. These claims were in contrast to independent observers of the country’s elections, with the European Union (EU) and the Economic Community of West African States bloc (ECOWAS) praising the country for well-administered and peaceful elections. Many African leaders, including the former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and former Vice President of Zambia Nevers Mumba, commended Liberia for sound and successful democratic processes. The 2023 elections were the first since the United Nations (UN) ended its peacekeeping mission in 2018, hence the first election without UN supervision.
Of the 2,471,617 registered voters, many are first-time voters born after the 1989-2003 civil wars. Although fewer voters participated in the second round of the presidential election, overall voter turnout was high. The first round of the presidential election saw a turnout of 79% compared to 66% in the second. It followed a similar trend from the 2017 election, where the first round of voting saw a larger turnout of 75% and a lower turnout of 56% in the second round.
Liberia has a bicameral legislature consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives is made up of 73 directly elected members. Members of parliament can serve up to six years per term and are led by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The Senate is made up of a total of 30 Senators, with two Senators representing each of the 15 constituencies. Senate elections are staggered. Half of the seats, one per constituency, are contested, and the remaining half is three years later. Then, there is a 6 year break before the election cycle repeats. All members of the Liberian Senate can serve up to nine years per term and are led by the President of the Senate. The President is the Head of the Governmentand the State and serves as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The President is elected through a majority vote in a two-round system and can serve up to two terms consisting of six years each.
Liberia does not maintain a quota on women's equal political participation. Earlier in 2023, former President George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change vetoed a 30% gender representation bill, saying that changes to the elections law may cause delays in the elections processes and send mixed signals to the electorate so close to the time of the polls. The veto of the mandatory 30% affirmative action to the new election law came after years of lobbying by women's rights advocates. Although the country has not adopted constitutional quotas, The National Elections Commission and registered political parties have affirmed "their commitments to implement a memorandum of understanding that requires a minimum 30% quota" for female politicians in Liberia. This electoral quota addresses the challenges of equal representation in Liberian politics.
Women’s Political Participation
In the 2023 elections to the House of Representatives, out of 1030 candidates, 152 were women. In the 2017 elections to the lower house, 165 women out of 1000 candidates participated. MEWC has yet to obtain comparable data for the Liberia Senate. However, in 2023, 7 of the 100 candidates for the Senate were women. In the House of Representatives, women secured 10.96% (8 out of 73 seats) in 2023 compared to 12.33% (9 out of 73 seats) in 2017.
It represents a decreased percentage of women elected to the lower house. In the Liberian Senate, they secured 6.67% (one out of 15 seats contested) in 2023. The 2020 initially showed the same results, with one woman elected to the Senate. However, a second woman was declared the winner of a Senate seat after winning a legal challenge, bringing the total number of women serving to two. Because of the staggered election system, the number of women in the Liberian Senate increased from 6.7% (2 out of 30 seats) in 2020 to 10% (3 out of 30 seats) in 2023.
The low level of female political participation may be attributed to traditional practices, socio-political norms, stereotyping, and intimidation, which many female politicians have cited as a struggle. Women representatives have faced bullying, shaming and harassment by their male opponents, which stifles political participation. Female politicians also lack support and access to funding from their political parties, which has led to a drop in the percentage of women running on party tickets. Sexual violence has persisted in the country for decades despite having female political leaders. Many women politicians have stated that they face gender-based violence as male politicians try to eliminate them from the process deliberately.
Liberia has introduced initiatives to increase women’s political participationnationally and locally. It includes the introduction of the National Gender Policy (2018-2022), which sets an affirmative action policy for women’s involvement, and the National Government’s Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD) (2018-2023). During the 2005 elections, electoral guidelines were introduced to register political partiesand independent candidates to enhance women’s participation in the political processes. The guidelines stated that “each party should ensure that 30% of candidates nominated for public elected office be women.” However, this gender quota was not adopted into law and did not come with any penalties for non-compliance. The Liberian political parties recently reaffirmed their commitments to implement the quota in 2023 in a ceremony held in Monrovia under the theme: ‘Increasing Women’s Political Participation in Elections through the Full Implementation of Section 4.5 B and C of the New Elections Law’ It is has been reported that only one party met the quota in the 2023 elections. The party, however, did not win any seats.
Liberia has also undertaken efforts addressing other issues affecting women’s lives, such as ending violence against women (VAW) and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). In 2022, the National Council of Chiefs and Elders in Liberia declared a permanent ban on FGM/C after advocacy and support from international partners and Liberian ministries. In 2020, President Weah made commitments to address the national rape crisis with measures such as establishing a national registry for sex offenders and installing a special prosecutor on rape. The country has also launched various awareness campaigns to highlight the harms of child marriages in communities, which included a regional campaign illustrating the government’s aim to abolish early and forced marriage in Liberia.
Liberian women face marginalisation in Liberia’s political processes. However, civil society organisations and female politicians are trying to improve female political participation in the country. One such organisation is the Initiative for Youth Empowerment and Economic Development (IYEED), which promotes women’s political leadership in the country. The IYEED has created a platform for female candidates to share their political experiences with voters, which amplifies their voices in the electoral process. Organisations such as Sister Aid have established leadership clinics to train female candidates in capacity building and prepare them for elections. Mmonbeydo Nadine Joah, an attorney from the Organisation for Women and Children, launched the Project Accountable Safe Space Women’s Accountability Room (PASSWAR) to monitor cases of violence against women during elections and ensure safe spaces for female candidates. Additionally, female politicians and women’s rights advocates such as Prescilla Cooper, Yah Parwon, and Victoria Torlo Koiquah have been outspoken about implementing strong laws and policies to support female political candidates in Liberian elections.
In the recently concluded elections, Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party was declared the winner in the presidential elections. Mr Boakai narrowly defeated the incumbent George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC). The country simultaneously held elections for the House of Representatives and half of the Senate. Of the political parties, the CDC secured the most seats in both houses of parliament, followed by the Unity Party. International and regional observers and African leaders, including the EU, ECOWAS, and more, praised the country for calm and peaceful elections.
The number of women elected to the legislature remains low. In the House of Representatives, the percentage of women elected dropped from 12.33% in 2017 to 10.96% in 2023. In the Liberian Senate, women secured one seat out of the 15 up for election. There are currently three female senators. The low representation of women has been accredited to intimidation, shaming and harassment, which has affected women politicians in the electoral processes. Although the country has ratified key legal and policy international and regional frameworks, there are still barriers to Liberian women’s political participation.
Several initiatives and efforts continue to be made by female political representatives and women’s groups to ensure Liberian women have equal representation and stay engaged in political processes. They include efforts to promote women’s political leadership, provide capacity building and call for the adoption and implementation of a quota. Their efforts ensure that female candidates are supported and ensure equal participation for all.