Liberia votes on plan to shorten presidential terms

Liberia’s President George Weah.PHOTO/AFP

Liberians are awaiting the result of a Tuesday vote that some political observers see as a major gauge of President George Weah’s support. However, critics see the vote as a potential power grab.

Weah was elected in 2018 and is still serving his first of a maximum two terms in office.

He has argued that keeping the same leader for years “is not the way to go” and pushed for a referendum to shorten the terms of elected officials. Under Weah’s plan, presidents and lower-house lawmakers would serve five years instead of six, with senators serving seven years instead of nine.

But the move has sparked suspicion in the region because other presidents have used constitutional changes to re-set the clock on their time in office, extending their grip on power.

In Guinea, 82-year-old President Alpha Conde won a controversial third term in October after pushing through a new constitution that allowed him to bypass a two-term limit.

The same month, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, 78, was elected for an equally contentious third term, after having revised the country’s constitution.

Opposition politicians in Liberia fear that Weah, 54, could try a similar move, although the president has denied the claim.

Born in Monrovia’s slums, the president rose to football stardom and then to his nation’s highest office, making him an idol to many.

But Weah is facing mounting criticism over poor living standards in Liberia.

The country is still recovering after back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 2003, and West Africa’s 2014-16 Ebola crisis. It also suffers from soaring inflation, and regular cash and fuel shortages.

The Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), an opposition coalition, has led the charge against the referendum and has urged its supporters to boycott the poll.

It argues that there was not enough public discussion about issues, which few fully understand.

“We don’t even know what the implications are when you vote ‘yes’ or you vote ‘no’,” CPP secretary-general Mohammed Aly told AFP recently, warning that Weah could seek further terms.

Weah’s chief of staff Nathaniel McGill dismissed the claim the president would seek to extend his stay in office, pointing out in October that the president had yet to even finish his first term.

“It is not good for one man to be president for a long time,”  McGill told reporters at the time.

About 2.5 million people were registered to vote in the West African state, according to the national elections commission (NEC).

It is not clear how many turned out before polling stations closed at 1800 GMT, but long queues across the capital suggested high participation.