Ellen Johnson Sirleaf may have won the Nobel Peace Prize and widespread international admiration, but can she win re-election?
GBARNGA, Liberia — The dusty alleys of this town of 20,000 became a parade route in late September, as President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's convoy snaked past thousands of cheering, sign-waving supporters en route to a campaign rally.
But despite pockets of rabid support and a committed base of female voters, Sirleaf faces substantial backlash at home that could -- even when coupled with global admiration and a shiny new Nobel Peace Prize, shared with fellow Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee -- see her opposition close in on the executive mansion.
At stake for Sirleaf in the first round of voting, kicking off here on Oct. 11, is another 5 years in office.
And at stake for Liberia is an international spotlight that could fade away if Africa's first elected female leader loses her bid for a second term.
Her standing looks different from outside the country, where the international political community heralds her as a beacon of hope for African women, than it does within Liberia's borders, where she faces growing criticism over a stalling economy and what's perceived to be a weak stance on corruption.
Only 15 percent of the population is currently employed in a "legitimate" industry, the rest resigned to hawking. As her convoy sped from Monrovia to Gbarnga, an SUV carrying an assistant minister trailed, handing out wads of cash -- about $50 apiece -- to village chiefs along the route. "Make sure everyone eats," he said. One child salesman crowding the car carried a bag of insects.
A 2006 campaign promise to fight corruption -- a key plank of Sirleaf's platform -- has gone, many here feel, largely unfulfilled. In a December 2010 report, Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International named Liberia the world's most corrupt country, beating out perennial favorites like Uganda, Kenya, and India.
Then there is her candidacy itself. Sirleaf had promised to be a one-term president, necessary balm for a population still healing from the wounds levied by the six-year reign of warlord dictator Charles Taylor, who advocated cannibalism among his troops, allowed marauding street gangs to terrorize Monrovia and was ousted at the end of the second civil war in 2003.
Sirleaf maintains that her decision to run was made this year, as a result of frustration that she had managed to bring peace to the country -- a process made even more laborious by Liberia's weak infrastructure -- but wouldn't get to stick around to implement any of the initiatives she had planned.
Though it's highly unlikely the country would ever sink back to its Taylor-era turmoil, election violence is expected in and around Monrovia in the next week, with hotheaded Unity Party (UP) and Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) supporters taking to the streets should their respective candidates lose. It's the first time Liberians have been in charge of running a transparent, democratic presidential election (albeit with a substantial amount of help from the donor community), and their ability to deal with any unrest is untested.
At the center of the storm is Sirleaf. A sign this election cycle might become combative was the bluntness of her campaign slogan: ‘Monkey Still Working, Baboon Wait Small' (the posters feature a monkey making a "talk to the hand" gesture), a reference to her own in-progress agenda and a call for her opponents to back off and wait five more years. "We still have got more work to do," she told thousands of supporters at the rally in Gbarnga. "We made some pledges to you."
What Liberians must decide beginning Tuesday is whether Sirleaf's perceived failings are enough to mitigate her importance on the global stage. The fact remains that even if she has failed to meet a number of expectations, as Africa's first elected female head of state, she brought international prominence and donor funding to a country previously unknown for much other than its two grisly periods of civil conflict, lasting from 1989 to 2003 (personal contacts from her time in Washington and at the World Bank -- and friendships with leaders like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who supports Sirleaf's gender-driven agenda -- also help). To overcome a last-minute groundswell of opposition, she'll depend on the female vote to pull through.
Without her, "it would be another country in Africa," says Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at Washington's Council on Foreign Relations. "President Sirleaf is an international celebrity. She brings attention to Liberia that no other public figure here could ever muster," adds a State Department official who has worked with her.
It's unlikely that any of her 15 male competitors would bring even a fraction of that spotlight to Monrovia, which depends heavily on outside support. In the run up to the election, the capital's streets are teeming with U.N. vehicles, and the organization's mission in Liberia has 9,200 uniformed peacekeeping officers on the ground, including on Sirleaf's personal security team.
The opposition seems to have considered this conundrum. The frontrunner against Sirleaf's Unity Party is Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change. A grey-haired lawyer, he seems to have locked up the crucial young male vote by naming ex-soccer star George Weah -- a former European club forward considered by many to be the greatest African player of all time -- as his running mate. Tubman and Weah say they can improve life -- especially for young people -- faster than Sirleaf.
But Sirleaf ran against both Weah and Tubman in 2006, with Weah's popularity among youth and men expected to carry him to a victory that never materialized. And it's widely assumed that she will again squeeze out a win. "She's going to appeal more to certain folks than others, and she's not going to carry everyone," Coleman says. "She'll still be able to get elected. But it's not a walkover."
In billboards that seem to loom down from every corner, car, and building in Monrovia, Sirleaf makes the case that she deserves a chance to finish what she started (one popular slogan: "if the plane ain't e'en landed yet, don't change the pilots").
She has a point. Continuity is critical for a country just eight years out of the civil war that killed 200,000 of its people and displaced more than 1 million others. Along streets lined with Sirleaf posters, thousands of former child soldiers wander, hawking vegetables and cheap clothes. The road leading to Gbarnga is still potholed, the result of wartime shelling.
But to win, Sirleaf will need opposition supporters to realize that the status she brings to the country is more important to its success than, say, a failed campaign promise to bring electricity to every house in Monrovia.
"When I met with her she threw up her hands and said, ‘It's really frustrating, I'm doing my best,'" Coleman says. "The progress has been much slower than she would have liked, and people are frustrated."
At the Gbarnga event, the speakers blared a new Afro-pop hit called "Pressure." The title didn't seem to faze Sirleaf as she worked the crowd. She dance-shuffled, threw rice over her head in traditional custom and took to the mic to make another round of promises punctuated by cheers -- 20,000 new jobs! All primary city roads paved! Airport modernized to international standards! An emphasis on punishing corrupt officials!
A marching band played as she took a final swing at the opposition.
"We'll give some people broken hearts, broken hearts, broken hearts," the president chanted, and the crowd exploded. It remains to be seen if the broken heart will be hers.
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