First, let me briefly note what it takes to amend the Liberian Constitution. A proposal for a constitutional amendment has to be put up for a referendum. The proposal may be made by members of the legislature or the general public. A proposal from the general public needs a petition signed by at least ten thousand citizens and the support of at least two-thirds of the members in the legislature. A proposal initiated in the legislature is subject to the same requirement less the need for a petition. Additional requirements including eligibility to participate in a referendum, campaigning and contributions are set forth in special regulations (PDF). A proposal voted for in a referendum may be adopted only if supported by at least two-thirds of the registered voters.
The August 2011 Liberian referendum, largely seen as a dry run for the upcoming general elections scheduled for October 11, 2011, was heavily focused on issues concerning presidential and legislative elections with three of the four questions in the referendum on the subject:
- a proposal to cut in half the minimum of 10 years residency requirement for presidential and vice-presidential candidates set forth in art. 52(c);
- a proposal to move the upcoming general elections from October 11, 2011, as mandated by art. 83(a), to November 8, 2011; and
- a proposal to eliminate the absolute majority rule under art. 83(b) as a minimum threshold to win an election for a seat at the legislature.
I thought it was interesting that a constitutional clause that imposes real property ownership requirement as a condition to qualify for presidential and vice-presidential runs, art. 52(b), was not part of the proposals to amend the Constitution.
The fourth proposal for amendment concerned the tenure of Supreme Court justices and judges of subordinate courts. The Constitution in art. 72(b) sets the retirement age (yes, there is mandatory retirement for judges in Liberia) at 70. The proposal sought to extend their tenure to 75.
Reports show that the voting process was marred by problems, logistical and political. A major problem was the confusion created on the referendum question regarding the tenure of judges in which, as a result of a printing mishap, voters were asked to choose on setting the retirement age between 75 and 75 instead of 70 and 75, a mistake that reportedly caused widespread confusion. Low turnout partly due to unavailability of adequate transportation was another issue; only 33% of the 1.8 million eligible to vote took part in the referendum. Tens of thousands of ballots were spoiled. The boycott of the referendum by Congress for Democratic Change, the leading opposition party in the Country which claimed that the proposed amendments heavily favored the ruling Unity Party, not only threatens the success of the referendum but also the October 2011 general elections.
Although official results of the referendum aren’t expected until September 7, 2011, early returns show that except the proposal to amend the absolute majority rule for legislative elections, all three of the other proposals are expected to fall short of the two-thirds support needed for their ratification.