Personality-based politics stifles multi-party democracy in LiberiaBy TERENCE SESAY in Monrovia | Friday, August 3 2012 at 17:09
In her address to the Liberian nation on the 165th Independence Anniversary, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf called for the institutionalisation of political parties. “…Our political parties must be built on institutions and move from personalities so as to make them competent to compete”.
Liberian politics, just like African politics, is remarkable for its lack of policy-driven parties. Instead, politics orbits around personalities – men like Yoweri Museveni, Raila Odinga, and Robert Mugabe – are at the core of the business of politics in their countries. Everything revolves around them.
Their political parties have no distinct identity; they are synonymous with the party leader. Centred on a personality, often times at his whims, these parties face political oblivion once the leader exits the political stage.
Sirleaf was candid in her assessment of the state of Liberia’s politics. Founded on clear principles and ideologies, the True Whig Party dominated Liberia’s politics for 133 years. All other political parties have had a life span of five to ten years. Military strongman Samuel Kanyon Doe’s National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) which assumed to power through the controversial 1985 coup was consumed by the 1990 civil war.
Former Warlord Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP) which took over power in the 1997 polls died when its leader – then indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone – was forced by international pressure to hand over power to an interim government in 2003.
It is obvious that these parties, built around personalities, could not stand on their own feet when their benefactors exited the political scene. Attempts to revive them proved futile because these parties neither had identity nor relevance.
The Unity Party
The current ruling party, the Unity Party, risks political oblivion once President Sirleaf retires. As power struggles intensify within the politburo, the party’s chances of clinching the presidency in the 2017 elections are increasingly becoming remote. The Unity Party is likely to lose relevance and identity once the president retires from politics.
Africa’s first female president, a Nobel Laureate, international reverence and connections – is all the party has, but will not have in the next elections.
Perhaps political parties are built around personalities to restrict competition and for selfish rent-seeking reasons. Political parties in Liberia, as well as in most African countries manage state power and resources through nepotistic and patronage networks.
Party-sponsored public officials have no loyalty to their party or the public but themselves. Once in office, they quickly abandon the party and focus on embezzling public resources to enrich themselves. The greed, corruption and arrogance of politicians once in power destroys the goodwill the party enjoyed from the public.
Liberia’s more than 20 political parties is anything but a reflection of a bustling democracy.
It is the cause of the anarchy in Liberia’s multi-party politics. The numerous political parties, few with similar ideologies but many founded on nothingness, have made it impossible to institutionalise party politics. Liberia will be served well by at least three to four political parties. It is the practice in developed democracies because of the redundancy of having political parties espousing the same policies and ideologies, what sort of market sells only one product?
Consider, for example, the United States, where only two major parties exist – the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The longevity of these parties is assured because most politically aware Americans consider themselves as either Republicans or Democrats, even though some switch sides on policy and principle.
If the United States with a population of more than 314 million has only two main parties, why should Liberia with a population of 3.5 million have up 20 political parties?
Liberia’s anarchic multi-party politics can be salvaged by dispensing with personality-based parties and building policy-based parties. Democracy is simply a market place where people choose between competing ideas and policies, not personalities. Perhaps a dual-party system like in the United States may insulate Liberia’s nascent democracy from personality-driven politics.
Individuals come and go, and the only way to ensure that political parties endure, is to institutionalise competitive leadership structures and develop apprenticeship programmes to groom rising stars in the party as potential future presidents and cabinet members, assuring the party a pool of competent leaders to field in all elections and maintain its relevance.
The True Whig Party did not fade into oblivion when the charismatic William Tubman died because party membership was based on ideological beliefs, which did go to the grave with the party leader.
Policy-driven parties will not be successful until Liberians end the culture of ethnic politics. Liberians choose their leaders based on kinship ties, a common thread than runs through the educated and uneducated voters. Once in power, these parties ‘reward’ their ethnic groups for support with jobs, public utilities and even money, widening the ethnic fractures of Liberia’s society.
Ethnic groups that feel left out form their own parties, believing, rightly so, that having their own man at the helm is the only way to safeguard the interests of their group. No ethnic group in Liberia can win elections on its own. Personality-based parties stifle the development of democracy and ethnic-based parties widens the ethnic fractures of Liberian politics which has been through a brutal civil war.
Policy-driven parties will not only consolidate Liberia’s nascent democracy. They will stabilise the nation, encourage healthy debates where people are able to disagree but reach a consensus and make the presidency not to be a life and death affair, its normal practice to lose elections.
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