VOTER AND CIVIC EDUCATION FOR PRESIDENTIAL AND LEGISLATIVE ELECTIONS IN 2023
BY MOST REV. ANDREW JAGAYE KARNLEY
BISHOP OF CAPE PALMAS
“The vote is precious. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, we must use it”. John Lewis
Introduction: Liberia votes in presidential and legislative elections on Tuesday, 10th October 2023. These elections come at a time when the country is once again at a critical juncture in its history. This document is intended as a contribution towards the voter and civic education process for the 2023 elections. It is meant to impress on all eligible voters the purpose and importance of the elections and the need to be well informed about the issues and the candidates. These elections are about electing leaders to serve the people of Liberia at the presidency and the legislature. This document also takes into consideration some of the essential leadership qualities those seeking public office should have.
The Purpose & Importance of the Elections: The presidential and legislative elections provide eligible voters the constitutional right to participate in the democratic process of electing leaders of their choice. They are the means through which legitimate authority is conferred by the electorate on qualified candidates for the holding of public office at the presidency and the legislature. These elections provide the arena in which the people of Liberia and the candidates elected into public office enter into a social contract to provide them service that would redound to the good of all. It is for service that people are elected or appointed to public office.
Hence, it is important that Liberians treat these elections as a serious matter and participate fully in the process of electing the candidates for service at the presidency and the legislature. It is the constitutional right and civic duty of every eligible Liberian to participate in the electoral process. Every Liberian who is eligible has the right to vote and to be voted into office without discrimination. The participation of women, youth, and even people with physical challenges should be encouraged and supported by all parties and stakeholders.
Voter and Civic Education: Voters need to be well informed about the electoral process and the issues facing the country in general. They also need to know the specific issues of their county, district, town, village, and community. Having access to credible information about the candidates and what they stand for is important. Each candidate must be known to have a track record of good service in the past and present. The lack of such important information on the part of voters means that they are not in the position to make an informed decision.
Civic and voter education thus aims at providing voters with the necessary information for them to actively participate in the electoral process and vote right. The information placed at their disposal empowers them to take responsibility for the destiny of their country, county, district, town, village, and community by electing the candidates of their choice.
Leadership Qualities: Candidates seeking election for the presidency and the legislature should be elected on the basis of the leadership qualities they exhibit. The electorate should critically evaluate the candidates and elect them on the merit of their leadership qualities. The following are but some essential leadership qualities voters should lookout for in the candidates.
- Character: This is the first and foremost quality any leader should have. It defines who a person really is or not. People of character are driven by values and principles. They act with integrity by being honest, accountable, and keeping their promises. King David, in his prayer of praise to God, said that “God is pleased with people of integrity” (1Chronicles 29:17). People of character are courageous in the face of challenges and even adverse opposition. They are that lone voice in the wilderness advocating for justice and the common good. One is assured of their commitment and loyalty, even when others are turning their backs and jumping ship. Such people do not sacrifice their values and principles on the altar of political expediency. They uphold their honor and respect and do likewise to others.
- Knowledge and Experience: The combination of knowledge and experience is an important leadership quality. Knowledge and experience give one the competence to lead in the executive branch of government and as a policymaker in the legislative branch of government for the common good. It is always a high risk to elect or appoint people into leadership who lack knowledge and experience. The electorate should lookout for candidates who have acquired a wealth of knowledge and experience.
- Vision: The Book of Proverbs 29:18 says that “people perish where there is no vision”. Vision thus plays an indispensable role in leadership in giving a sense of direction and purpose. By the different visions the candidates articulate, they tell us the direction in which they intend to take the country, county, district, town, village, and community from their present realities. Voters need to know more importantly what short and long term visions the candidates have rather than allowing themselves to be easily swayed by the fleeting impressions of election campaign paraphernalia, quick impact projects for votes, food and entertainment, financial and material donations. These fleeting impressions last only for the election season and not beyond. This is mere political stagecraft for votes. Candidates whose realistic and pragmatic vision will bring about sustainable development and empower people to feed and sustain themselves for a lifetime rather than a day deserve to be voted into office.
- Desire and Passion to Serve: It is my strong belief that any person with a good vision will have the desire and passion to serve. Robert K. Greenleaf in his groundbreaking essay, “The Servant as Leader” rightly says that a person who wants to lead must first have the desire to serve. He must first be a servant to be a leader. This resonates well with the words of Jesus that “whoever wants to be first must be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mk.9:35). And Jesus makes it emphatically clear that he came to serve and not to be served (Mk. 10:45). Thus leadership is for service to people rather than to oneself and particular interests.
Robert Greenleaf says that the litmus test for leadership is that the “highest priority needs” of people are served. It must thus bring benefits to people rather than making them live in perpetual abject poverty and deprivation. The words of Jesus “I came that they may have life and have it to the full” Jn. 10:10) even raise the bar higher on leadership and service.
- Communication: As communication is vital for effective leadership, all presidential and legislative candidates should clearly communicate their vision and share with the voters their honest views on issues such as governance, the state of the economy, corruption and accountability, deplorable roads and infrastructure, social services, the New Public Health Law Bill and Abortion, peace and security, human rights and justice, the danger of drugs, et cetera. But communication also entails that the candidates have the ability to listen to the views and concerns of the people. There should be a space for dialogue and constructive engagement between the candidates and the electorate. This space affords the candidates the opportunity to present and articulate their political manifestos to the electorate.
- Humility: Humility is a virtue that every leader needs to cultivate. It enables him to become aware of his strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and inevitably his total dependence on God. A humble leader is God fearing. King Solomon was humble to acknowledge his limitations and asked God for wisdom to govern in the right way. And God gave him wisdom, including riches he did not ask for (1Kings 3:1-15).
As a further illustration of humility and dependence on God, the African American civil rights activist and leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., turned to God in prayer one night while taking coffee in his kitchen and confessed his weakness in an agonizing moment of deep fear for his life, doubts, and discouragement. His fears and doubts were allayed and he became motivated to stay the course of the civil rights struggle when he heard an inner voice telling him “Martin Luther King Jr., stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world”. It takes a humble leader to always turn to God in prayer and confess his weakness.
Being aware of his strengthens, weaknesses, and limitations, a humble person knows that he also needs and depends on the knowledge, skills, and experience of other people to serve effectively as a leader. He builds a competent team around him to collaborate with him in making his vision a reality.
A humble leader is one who does not put himself above the law. He knows that he can be held accountable for his words, actions, and stewardship as a leader. Humility requires that he lives with the ever present reality that he is not indispensable no matter how important he may be.
A humble person takes responsibility for his words and actions, especially when things go wrong. It is a true mark of humility to apologize for mistakes and when things go wrong. Playing the pathetic victim and shifting blame instead of taking responsibility and apologizing for one’s wrongdoings does not distinguish one as a leader with humility.
An Appeal: In the interest of safeguarding the twenty years of peace Liberia has attained thus far and sustaining its democracy, an appeal is made to all candidates, their supporters, and stakeholders to ensure that the presidential and legislative elections are truly democratic in nature, transparent, free and fair, and devoid of verbal and physical violence. All protocols and procedures governing the peaceful conduct of campaign activities, the elections, and the handling of disputes that may arise should be adhered to by all candidates of political parties, independent candidates, and their supporters.
The security apparatus of the country should be non-partisan and work at eliminating all internal and external security threats to all candidates and stakeholders in the elections. And as the security situation in the Sahel region is very concerning and having ripple effects in the West African sub-region, security along Liberia’s borders with neighboring countries and even the Atlantic coast should be proactively attended to with the utmost vigilance during the elections and beyond.
Conclusion: In his encyclical entitled Fratelli Tutti (literally meaning We Are All Brothers), Pope Francis says that politics is something noble and calls for better politics that advances the common good of all men and women. The Holy Father makes the passionate appeal to politicians to work for the common good and change the social conditions that cause suffering in the lives of people.
The 2023 presidential and legislative elections provide Liberians the opportunity to exercise their democratic right to elect a president, vice president, and legislators of their choice to serve the common good. We therefore need to responsibly exercise our constitutional right to vote by understanding the electoral process, the issues, and knowing the candidates and their qualities. It is important that we listen and critically analyze the issues emerging before and during the campaign as well as scrutinize the candidates. This we need to do in view of voting the right leadership for the presidency and the legislature.
Let us commend the entire presidential and legislative electoral process to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord, through the intercession of His Blessed Mother and the Saints, make Liberia a better democracy, and a country that is peaceful and prosperous through the outcome of the 2023 elections.