Liberia to vote on constitutional referendum

AP News
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Posted: Aug 22, 2011 9:29 AM
Liberia to vote on constitutional referendum

Poll workers and United Nations peacekeepers fanned out across Liberia on Monday ahead of a constitutional referendum that is being boycotted by the country's leading opposition party.

The referendum scheduled for Tuesday is being seen as a test of Liberia's democracy as the country prepares to hold its second, postwar election this fall.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has become a symbol of good governance abroad, is facing stiff competition in this country of 3.5 million devastated by war.

Sirleaf has been heading a "Vote Yes to All Propositions" campaign for the four-item ballot. The top opposition party is calling on supporters to boycott the referendum because they say the proposed constitutional changes favor the ruling party and will make it easier for Sirleaf to be re-elected later this year.

"We are not joining those who want to slaughter the constitution for selfish reasons," Acarous Moses Gray, the secretary-general of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change party, told The Associated Press by telephone on Monday.

Election Commission Chairman James Fromoyan called the boycott "unfortunate" but said he doubts it will be fully enforced. 1.7 million registered voters are eligible to vote.

The secretary-general of the governing party, Wilmot Page, called the boycott "an infringement on the rights of those who want to exercise their franchise."

One of the amendments questioned by the opposition would lower the percentage of votes a candidate needs to win a legislative or municipal election. Currently a candidate needs to get an absolute majority _ meaning more than 50 percent of votes cast. The amendment would allow a candidate to win with a simple majority, giving the win to the candidate who gets the most votes.

This could help the ruling party, which typically unites behind a single candidate who would usually receive the most votes in a field crowded with opposition contenders.

Another amendment would lower the residency requirement for presidential candidates from 10 years to five. If this were to pass, the slate of opposition candidates could grow considerably _ a move that would hurt the opposition since they would split the vote.

The two other proposed changes include pushing back the date of this year's election from October to November to avoid the rainy season and increasing the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 75.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission, which has been in Liberia since the end of the civil war in 2003, paraded a fleet of tanks on the streets of the Liberian capital over the weekend in a show of strength.

"Violence will not be tolerated," Margaret Loj, the United Nations' Special Representative in Liberia, said on national radio Monday morning.