Monrovia - Is Montserrado County Senator George Weah’s best path to the Liberian presidency at the top or playing second fiddle?
The football legend has gone to the second round twice in the past two presidential elections and lost. Ahead of the 2017 presidential race, many are projecting that a third time may unlikely be the charm and Weah could see a repeat second round meltdown in 2017.
Ironically, some, including key members of the recently-formed coalition CDC-NPP-NDP – are harboring fears that Mr. Weah may not be the best second round candidate – especially against what is expected to be a formidable incumbent in Joe Boakai amid a splintering opposition.
In his last two tries, both – in 2005 and 2011 - Mr. Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change came up short in the second round of voting. In Liberia, a candidate must get 50 percent plus one to win the p residency, and with more than 15 likely presidential contenders, political observers and international stakeholders all agree that not one of them are likely to garner the required 50 plus one in the first round of voting.
Heading into what is inarguably the most crucial elections in Liberia’s post-war sojourn, concerns are growing that the football legend’s popularity and splintering opposition could likely see him make a third successive entry into the second round.
Ironically, though those expectations are equally eclipsed by burning concerns, that Mr. Weah’s political wing, the Congress for Democratic Change’s second-round losses in the past two elections could make them a tough sell, especially against a formidable incumbent as vice president Joseph Boakai – or the surprise emergence of a potentially-strong third-party candidate.
3rd-Time Loser or 3rd -Time Charmer?
Is Mr. Weah the best candidate to face off against Boakai in a potential second round? Many in the opposition including the newly-formed coalition of NPP, CDC and LDP are worried that Weah may not be the right candidate to face off against Boakai, likely paving the way for a third term for the ruling Unity Party especially if the uncertainty surrounding a clear favorite heading into 2017 lingers.
Other prominent Liberians who want to back Mr. Weah because of their disappointment in the perceived failures of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf-led Unity Party are also worried that the Senator might not be able to topple VP Boakai in the second round.
Those fears are being bolstered in the wake of Mr. Weah’s performances or lack thereof in the Liberian senate. In the past two elections, Mr. Weah has had a perception gap that he is not “qualified” and up to the task to govern a post-war country, as even former US President Bill Clinton once mocked Weah that his only claim to fame is “kicking” soccer ball.
Mr. Weah’s role in the Senate was supposed to erase or reduce some that perception gap, but many are not sure whether he has demonstrated anything tangible in Senate to boost his standing in the eyes of Liberians and the international community.
Those fears, concerns, perceptions and exercise of judgement are being bolstered in the wake of Mr. Weah’s recent alliances with a former speaker accused of corruption in Alex Tyler and his embrace of former President Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front in a coalition.
These, political observers say, are not considered major players that are able to help Mr. Weah close the perception gap of being unqualified to govern Liberia especially considering the enormous criticisms the Sirleaf-led government endured about its stance against corruption and good governance.
Advocates for the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings are also taking issue with Mr. Weah who could see him as unlikely to end the culture of impunity and implement the TRC under the current arrangement of his coalition bloc.
Weah vs. White: The Taylor Contact Concerns
Weah’s judgement and embrace of Tyler and Taylor, has drawn criticisms from Mr. Allan White, a former prosecutor who led the charges against former President Taylor. Mr. White took Mr. Weah to task for going to bed with Taylor.
Mr. White alleges that Weah and Taylor have been in talks: “He’s been in discussion with Senator George Weah who recently signed an agreement to join forces with Jewel Taylor – Taylor’s former wife – to support seeking the presidency and the vice presidency. George will be at the top of the ticket”.
Added Mr. White during a VOA Nightline program recently: “The allegations and sourced information that I’m receiving is that Charles Taylor, the former President – indicted and convicted war criminal for his actions in Sierra Leone and the leader of the RUF – is interfering with the elections.”
According to Mr. White, the Senator has been having discussions with Charles Taylor on ensuring that there would never be a war crimes court established in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The CDC has not come out to out rightly deny the claims but has instead turn the tables on Mr. White to offer proof. We cannot confirm nor deny that such a discussion may have taken place. I’m sure Mr. White will have his evidence to prove that.
It still remains an allegation that we cannot confirm nor deny. What we can say is that the Congress for Democratic Change has been in discussion with a number of opposition political parties to form an alliance or a coalition for the purpose of the ensuing 2017 election”, Said Mr. Wilson Tarpeh, a senior strategist for the Weah-led coalition.
Weah is also taking hits from some members of his constituency concerned about his massive absence from legislative sessions and lengthy stays in Abuja where he is the chair of the Liberian delegation to the Parliament of the Economic Community of West African state.
2nd Round Redux: Can Weah Break the Curse?
In April, the Institute for Research and Democratic Empowerment slammed Weah and a number of lawmakers for poor showing at the Legislature in terms of participation in making contributions to legislative debates which is a statutory responsibility of senators, a situation, the Senator’s critics say, is likely to cast dark cloud over their abilities to steer the affairs of the state at the level of the presidency.
Ahead of the 2017 presidential race, many are projecting that a third time second-round play is unlikely to be the charm and Weah could see a repeat second round meltdown in 2017.
In the general elections of October 2005, Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) led him to a first-place finish in the presidential poll, winning 28.3% of the vote.
In the second round however, he was defeated by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of the Unity Party in the November 8 run-off election, winning 40.6% of the vote compared to Johnson-Sirleaf's 59.4%.
Six years later, in the October 2011 elections, Weah settled for second, running as vice president to veteran diplomat Ambassador Winston Tubman. This time around, CDC again came up short losing to the UP in the first round. UP won 43.9% of the vote, while CDC with Tubman at the helm, tallied 32.7%.
In the run-off, on November 8, 2011. Tubman alleged that the first round had been rigged in Sirleaf's favor and called on his supporters to boycott the run-off. CDC’s furor over the results led to a drop in second-round attendance.
According to the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, turnout was at 61% compared to the 74.9% turnout in the first round. In the end, NEC declared Sirleaf the winner on November 15, 2011 with 90.7% of the vote.
Since 2005, Weah’s popularity has accounted to a sizeable proportion of the national legislature with many who have rode on his back winning seats in the national legislature.
Ahead of 2017, signs on the wall appear to be the same as both incumbents and hanger-on look to capitalize on Mr. Weah’s popularity in hopes of winning entry into the legislature or maintain their presence there.
But many appear unsure the end would be the same this time around as virtually all the races across the country are expected to be competitive due to the dismal performance of many members of the national legislature.
Pyric Victory Looms for Weah-Led Coalition
Nevertheless, amid mounting concerns that while Mr. Weah may not be the best second-round candidate to end the ruling Unity Party dominance, his party’s performance in the past two elections could see him once again repeating the feat in what is likely to be pyric victory of sorts and a costly one at most for those looking to break the ruling Unity Party hegemony.
In fact, many would agree that Weah and perhaps Senator Prince Johnson (who came 3rd in 2011 because of his county being the second largest vote-rich county, hold the key to unseating the Unity Party-led Government. But many also believe that neither Weah nor Senator Johnson are second-round finishers, as neither can defeat a formidable VP in a second round contest.
For Weah, and the new Coalition for Democratic Change, the 2017 presidential elections could mark a significant turning point. A place in the second round and a win could shake the losing tag that has dogged Mr. Weah; Equally so, another losing effort could likely seal Mr. Weah’s fate as a formidable presidential candidate, popular enough to qualify for the second round but perceived by many as incapable of winning a large proportion of crossover voters beyond his grassroots base, seen as essential for propelling him over the top.
The NPP Split Implications
Another factor complicating the recent coalition is the lingering infighting within the NPP who lost one of its most influential founding members, Bomi County Senator Sando Johnson.
Senator Johnson recently announced that he was leaving the party to join Urey’s All Liberian Party (ALP).
Senator Johnson announced the suspension of his membership from the party after it signed a coalition agreement with the Weah-led coalition.
In parting shots, Senator Johnson, a former vice president for administration in the party, declared that his decision to sever relations with the party was prompted by failure of the national executive committee (NEC) members to include him when taking major decisions at the detriment of ordinary partisans.
Senator Johnson cited the refusal of the party’s NEC to continue an open dialogue for the inclusion of other opposition political parties on the now seemingly sealed three-party Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC).
Senator Johnson made specific reference to a clause in the coalition’s document that gives the Congress for Democratic Change of Senator George Manneh Weah the power to nominate the presidential and vice presidential candidates.
“Those are the two most important positions in the coalition,” Sen. Johnson argued.
“If the decision to choose them is allotted to the CDC, what role will the NPP play?”
Boakai’s Emergence vs. Warning Signs
While many in the opposition have already begun to write off Boakai; the man from vote-rich Lofa is said to have been taking advantage of an unsettled opposition to quietly make his play for the presidency.
Until now, Boakai has remained coy about his feelings of his boss, President Sirleaf.
But in a Prime FM radio interview this week, Boakai, like former President Tolbert offered a glimpse of what many perceived as his weakness: standing in the shadows while ignoring the realities on the ground.
Said Boakai: “I want to believe that she (EJS) and I understand that whatever we have done in this administration, we all have different ways of implementing whatever obligation we have. And I believe, like I told her, her style of implementation is different from my style of implementation.
I myself have been an administrator in many capacities with success, so I want to prove to Liberians that I have my own line of doing things that are proven successful and I am committed to that.”
The ruling party’s governance lapses and poor anti-corruption record has been a pressing point for opposition eager to take Boakai to the sword on the campaign trail but separating himself from Sirleaf, could be seen by many as a last-inning play unlikely to deter those who have already made up their mind about eyeing a change and ending the UP hegemony.
A Dogged Fight for Third
But the absence of a strong third party candidate or opposition bloc, according to some political observers could see the Weah-led coalition into the second round. The million-dollar question is against which opposition?
The formidable Boakai? Charles Brumskine, Benoni Urey, Prince Johnson? Alexander Cummings? Augustine Ngafuan? Mills Jones?
This is where things get tricky, particularly judging from the events of the past few months and uncertainty and infighting amongst a failed attempt to unify the opposition.
Bitter feud between Brumskine and Urey, trust factor of Prince Johnson and the familiarity concerns of the local terrain for Cummings have added more to the bewilderment surrounding a clear front-runner to succeed Sirleaf.
The former Coca Cola executive has been making inroads in rural Liberia and has been recently linked to talks with Ambassador Jeremiah Sulunteh as his potential running mate. His supporters see him as a dark horse in a crowded field but his critics say, time may not be on his side.
Brumskine’s Liberty Party is being dubbed the most experience and well-organized and has been expanding its outreach with businessman Musa Bility said to be a strong contender as a vice president to Brumskine.
Ben Urey is also reported to be building strong inroads in Weah’s Montserrado stronghold and also in the interior part of the country.
Jones and former Foreign Minister Augustine Ngafuan, like Cummings, are also pursuing an interior strategy where they believe Weah is weakest. Senator Prince Johnson remains the favorite in Nimba country and likely to do well amongst his kinsmen in Montserrado as well.
In all of the political calculations however, many see that a hope for the opposition is only possible if the remaining opposition came together and create a third powerful force: Brumskine, Urey, Cummings, Prince Johnson, Mills Jones and Ngafuan. But the question is who is willing to lay down their personal ambition for the benefit of the one Liberia they all are claiming to love.
Giving the high possibility for Weah and VP Boakai will head in the second in the midst of 15 presidential contenders, political observers say the chance to pull ahead of either Weah or Boakai in the first round to make it to the second round is for the remaining opposition to come together.
But will it happen?
The end result in the absence of a strong third force, could likely point to a possible victory for Boakai and third term for the ruling UP; as there is a consensus opinion emerging that even the remaining members of the opposition could likely throw their weight behind Boakai over Weah in a second-round match-up; just as it was in 2011 when nearly 95% of the 15 plus contenders including Prince Johnson, supported Sirleaf over Tubman-Weah in the second round.