Alumni Compete in Liberian Election

Voters headed to the polls Tuesday to cast their ballot in Liberia’s presidential election, picking from a 16-candidate field that includes two Harvard graduates.

Both graduates, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Winston A. Tubman, are widely considered the race’s frontrunners.

The National Election Commission began counting votes when polls closed at 6 p.m. Tuesday and will announce the final results on Oct. 26. If no one receives a majority in this round of voting, a runoff will take place on Nov. 11.

The Liberian news organization FrontPageAfrica.com reported that despite heavy rains, voter turnout was high and the election was peaceful, assuaging fears of violence.

Sirleaf, a 1971 graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School and the University’s commencement speaker last spring, has held the office since 2006 and is the first and only female head of state in Africa. Last Friday, she won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with two other female African activists. [LINK1] According to the Nobel Committee’s website, “she has contributed to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women.”

Tubman, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1966, attended the Celebration of Black Alumni conference, titled “Struggle and Progress: Leadership in the 21st Century,” at Harvard in September. [LINK2]

Sirleaf, the incumbent, heads the Unity Party, while Tubman represents the Congress for Democratic Change. Tubman’s campaign is perhaps better known for the other half of its ticket, vice-presidential candidate George Weah. A former soccer star and celebrity among Liberian youth, Weah ran unsuccessfully for president against Sirleaf in 2005

Ishac Diwan, a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, explained that while many Liberians are concerned about issues such as corruption and unemployment, it is difficult to predict the election’s winner.

“I wouldn’t bet on anyone,” Diwan said. “The opposition is divided. There are various egos. It’s hard to come together.”

He also said the Nobel Peace Prize announcement’s impact on the election is still to be seen.

“I’m sure it will affect [the election]; the question is by how much,” Diwan said. “People are judging [Sirleaf] by how much their lives have been affected.”

In her Harvard commencement speech last May, Sirleaf urged graduates to be “fearless about the future,” raising difficult moments in her life and path to the Liberian presidency, especially with regard to the gender barriers that she faced as a female African politician.

She also noted at the time that she was preparing to run against another Harvard graduate, Tubman, who she called “the strongest opposition contender.”

“The relationship between Harvard and Liberia is thus secured and in good hands,” Sirleaf said in her speech.

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