MONROVIA, Liberia -- I haven't read Paul Collier's new book, "Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places," but I did catch Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth's review in the Sunday Times. Sitting here in Monrovia, a chill went up my spine, because according to Roth/Collier, Liberia has many of the elements that are guarantors of instability: a weak press, poor performing legal structures, ineffectual civic institutions, high levels of corruption and extreme poverty.
There is no doubt that the Sirleaf government is legitimate, even in the eyes of its harshest critics. Its big test, however, will come in the elections of 2011, when the opposition points out at all the things it hasn't achieved, and resuscitates the volatile issue of "national identity."
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will likely win the election in 2011 if she chooses to run. For the sake of ordinary Liberians, it will be much better if the results are a well-validated landslide. As we have seen in other developing country's elections, which are documented in Collier's book, the election process itself can exacerbate ethnic tensions that easily bubble over into bloodshed. (Last week's deadly political riots between rival political groups in Sierra Leone are a grim example.)
Collier's thesis seems to be that elections themselves are never necessarily a sign of stable structures, and in many cases are quite the opposite. This will obviously be something of a slap in the face to all the international aid groups that have seemingly been wasting their donors' money on counterproductive election-promotion activities. Collier believes that elections in fragile democracies will only take hold if foreign actors guarantee the results and protect the legitimate government from subsequent coups, even if it means military intervention. Without this stick, the carrot of grabbing power will always be too sweet for the losers to ignore.
(First published in World Politics Review, March 25th 2009)