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Opinions of Thursday, 18 December 2008

Columnist: Asare, Yaw

Weah's Second-Round Defeat Not Likely to be Repeated in Ghana

Yaw Asare

In the past few days, there has been much discussion of the fact that in the 2005 presidential election in Liberia, the victor of the first round ultimately lost in the second round. People are speculating that this might herald a victory for the NDC on December 28. However, it is worthwhile to note that the situations are not comparable, and one scenario should not be applied to another.

In 2005, Liberia was emerging from over 14 years of civil conflict and repression. Charles Taylor had been forced from the seat of power and was not contesting the presidency. The political system was opened for the first time in many years, and some 22 candidates contested the first round.

George Weah won the first round (with just over 28% of the vote), but lost in the second round to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (who had received just under 20% in the first round). This situation is unique, however, for several reasons.

George Weah was an international footballer who was well-known to virtually everyone in the nation because of his profile as one of few Liberian celebrities outside of Liberia. His return to run for president garnered a huge amount of public attention, and his campaign was centered entirely around his fame. Even before the first round, there was almost 100% name recognition for him across Liberia, and his campaign used lavish resources to try to win support. In short, he had already won most of the votes he could have won before the first round vote was cast, since he was campaigning on personality rather than issues.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the voters had already chosen not to vote for him because they cared about the vital issues facing post-conflict Liberia – not about the fame of a potential leader. It was for this reason that the non-Weah vote aligned in the second round behind Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had carefully positioned her campaign platform around the issues that Liberians cared most about. Ellen’s vote more than doubled in the second round (with a 150% increase), while Weah’s increased only by 25% of his original tally. Ellen won with almost 60% of the vote.

However, in Liberia, it was clear from the first day Weah announced his candidacy that he would win a first round vote because of his tremendous popularity. The Sirleaf strategy was, all along, to get second in the first round to contest the run-off because she knew she could beat Weah in a one-on-one race.

In Ghana, however, the starting point is different. We are not a post-conflict state fighting a legacy of brutality and torment, nor are we faced with the challenge of rebuilding our nation from its own ashes. Both the parties in the run-off are established entities in Ghana’s political system, not building a profile from scratch, and both sides are campaigning on issues. Additionally, while now-President Sirleaf knew her strongest turnout would be in the second round vote, the NDC seems to have peaked its turnout already. In Ghana, the margin between the two leading parties is such that there is simply not as much of the vote to be won in the second round, whereas in Liberia more than 50% of the vote was up for grabs in the run-off. Finally, while Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had contested an election against Taylor before and was a known face in local politics, she was also extraordinarily accomplished in her own right from her time at various financial institutions and from her career at the UNDP. It was her experience that won her the second round vote.

These playing fields are in no way equal, and President Sirleaf’s success does not set a precedent for an NDC victory. Atta Mills is no Johnson Sirleaf.

The author is a researcher at the Danquah Institute