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Liberia constitutional amendments rejected in national referendum

Liberia's National Election Commission (NEC) [official website] on Wednesday announced that all four proposed amendments to the Republic's constitution were voted down [press release] in last week's national referendum. One defeated proposal was to move back the national election date from the first Tuesday in October to the first Tuesday in November, pushing the election out of the rainy season, which might increase voter turnout, and closer to the January presidential inauguration, which would help to alleviate security concerns. Another change, also rejected, called for a simple majority for victory in local and legislative polls, which aimed to elect officials in a single round, doing away with expensive run-off elections. Also defeated was the proposed amendment to raise the Liberian Supreme Court judge retirement age from 70 to 75. The most controversial proposal would have lowered the residency requirement for presidential candidates from 10 years to five. Predictions are that this change would open up the field to more opposition party candidates and disqualify others, cumulatively increasing the chance for reelection for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf [Guardian backgrounder]. The existing residency rule was suspended for the 2005 election because most candidates had recently returned from post-war exile. In her results announcement from the capital city of Monrovia, NEC Co-chairman Elizabeth Nelson [official profile] calculated that the 34.2 percent turnout rate for the 1,798,930 eligible voters had required each proposal to have more than 400,000 votes to pass (a two-thirds majority). With 99 percent of polls reporting, none of the proposals passed the 300,000 mark. Opposition party Congress for Democratic Change [party website] reportedly called on its members to boycott the election [Bloomberg report] and are calling the referendum a victory against the ruling Unity Party.

With no reports of violence at the polls, the referendum still had its procedural issues, including the NEC's distribution of defective paper ballots [JURIST report]. Despite the referendum, Liberia has been criticized for its poor human rights record in recent years. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon [official profile] emphasized [UN News Centre report] in a 2010 progress report [text, PDF] that reconciliation in Liberia [JURIST report] hinges on the development of its national security and its legal institutions. Liberia struggles [JURIST report] with corruption in its criminal justice system, poor detention conditions and sexual and gender-based violence, including rape and forced marriage, according to a UN Mission in Liberia [official website] combined quarterly report [text, PDF] released in April 2008. In 2007, the UN independent expert on the promotion and protection of human rights in Liberia urged the country to accelerate its human rights efforts [JURIST report], and in particular called on the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) [official website] to begin operations. The TRC held its first public hearings [JURIST report] after several months delay due to lack of funding. The TRC is investigating possible war crimes that occurred during the civil war that ended in 2003, but does not have the authority to try cases.

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