Liberia: Grassroots Alternative Movement Wants Referendum Postponed to Avert Recurrence of 2011 ‘Failed Referendum’

GAM: “The Referendum will definitely become a side issue with very less interest. In that case, one does not have to be a Rocket Scientist to know that there will be a very low turnout for the referendum as we saw in the last Referendum that was held in 2011.”

Monrovia – An advocacy group, the Grassroots Alternative Movement (GAM) has petitioned the 54th Legislature of Liberia to postpone the upcoming December 8, 2020 Referendum.

In a communication to the Legislature through House Speaker Bhofal Chambers and President Pro Tempore Albert Chie, GAM said if the Senatorial election and the referendum are held together, the senatorial elections will take away the meaning and enthusiasm of the referendum as the Senatorial Election is the single highest subject of national discussion at the moment.

“The Referendum will definitely become a side issue with very less interest. In that case, one does not have to be a Rocket Scientist to know that there will be a very low turnout for the referendum as we saw in the last Referendum that was held in 2011,” GAM said in the statement.

GAM further requests that if the referendum is postponed, the Legislature should set up a new Constitution Committee to revise the current Constitution to meet the aspiration of the Liberian people.

The House of Representatives, on June 23, 2020 concurred with the Liberian Senate to adopt the resolution setting the special senatorial elections and national referendum on December 8, 2020 which had previously been scheduled for October 13, 2020.

By doing so, the Legislature also ignored President George Weah’s request for the both events to be held on December 8, 2020.

In the joint resolution, the Legislature stated “that due to the outbreak and effect of  COVID-19 including financial difficulties arising therefrom in early 2020 which constrained funding for the 2020 senatorial election and the referendum, the Senatorial election and referendum scheduled for October 13, 2020 is hereby postponed to Tuesday, December 8, 2020 in order to conduct free, fair, transparent and credible elections, thereby having the elected Senators to be seated on the second working Monday of January 2021 as mandated by the Constitution.”

The Legislature also called for the appropriations it made for the holding of the elections to be adhere to and the Executive shall make the fund immediately available for the smooth conduct of the elections and referendum.

Since then the national Elections Commission (NEC) has begun preparations for the electoral processes.

But in a statement to the Legislature, GAM stated that the NEC does not have the requisite timeframe to its disposal, and full capacity to adequately educate and inform Liberians, especially eligible voters on the propositions, steps, and procedures of the senatorial election and the referendum.

“The NEC has depended on short-term awareness and sensitization activities during electioneering periods. Although this strategy has worked to certain extent for regular elections, we believe the education associated with the Referendum is much more complicated and requires adequate preparation,” GAM said in the communication signed by Josiah F. Joekai, Jr., Executive Chairman of GAM-International based in the United States and Dr. Emmanuel K. Urey, the Executive Chairman of GAM-Liberia.

Further in the statement, GAM noted that it is quite aware the country does not have a national mechanism in place with the capacity to conduct sustained civic education, particularly teaching the Constitution in keeping with Article 10 to make citizens aware of these Constitutional matters in a way that they know their rights, roles and responsibilities to contribute to the governance of the country.

Article 10 of the 1986 Constitution provides that the Constitution shall be published and disseminated with its principles taught in institutions of learning across the country.

GAM said: “Sadly, this has not happened and the gap therefrom, has had serious implications for governance and growth of democracy in Liberia. The entrenched voter apathy in the country is a good example, and the forthcoming Election and Referendum, if held as planned will also record a very low turnout, particularly for the Referendum.”

Further backing its claims, the political and social justice group noted that voting in a referendum with more than one issues such as the one pending is a very complicated process, adding the ballots do not carry human faces as the case in regular elections.

As an issue-based election, the group stated that the ballots carry symbols with corresponding scripts to identify, read and vote. Additionally, with the very limited timeframe for education, information dissemination, mobilization of resources and deployment of logistics, combining these national elections and ‘important’ referendum is impossible.”

Learning from the Past

The national referendum was authorized by the 54th Legislature through the adoption of a joint resolution (Leg-002/2019) on September 30, 2019 and approved by the President and published into handbills is seeking to amend certain portions of the Constitution of Liberia to allow dual citizenship, reduction in the tenure of the President, Vice President and members of the Legislature as well as the change in the date of Liberia’s presidential and legislative elections.

But the leaders of the group, further backing their claims in a virtual news conference on Wednesday, warned that combining the two events will defeat the crucial propositions as it did in the 2011 referendum.

On August 23, 2011, Liberians went to the polls to vote to amend a proposal to reduce by half the ten-year residency requirement for presidential candidates, a proposal to change constitutionally mandated general elections date, a proposal to extend the retirement age of judges from 70 to 75, and to amend a proposal that requires that elections to public office be won by a simple majority, and not by an absolute majority.

Of the total of 1.7 million registered voters, only 615, 203 voted for the referendum.

The NEC tabulated and counted the votes in the referendum and announced that none of the four prepositions received the required two-thirds votes of the total votes cast.

However, based on a petitioned from then Unity Party’s National Chairman Cllr. Varney Sherman (now Senator), the Supreme Court ruled that Proposition number four, which called for election to public office (except the President and Vice president) be won by simple majority should be passed.

Unlike the referendum, the group noted that the presidential and legislative elections, which were held in the same year attracted tremendous attention over the referendum and made it a side issue completely.

It warned that if this referendum is defeated as a result of low turnout or other reasons, it will be difficult to reintroduce these same propositions for future referenda.

“Learning from the recent past, the 2011 President and Legislative Elections that were combined with the Referendum clearly defeated the purpose of the crucial Propositions that were in the Referendum.”

The group’s executives further that “right now, we are in a better position to prevent this from happening as the Government is yet to mobilize and make available the needed financial resources for the Referendum and Senatorial Election.”

They also pledged to offer the organization’s assistance to NEC in whatever positive way to ensure that process is carried on smoothly if their request is granted by the Legislature.