* Supreme Court studying residency requirements for candidates
* Legal wrangle could complicate October election
By Alphonso Toweh
MONROVIA, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Liberia’s Supreme Court is considering whether incumbent leader Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, her main rival and four other candidates are eligible to stand in next month’s presidential elections, officials said.
The legal hitch, which arose after a small opposition party argued the candidates did not meet residency requirements to run, could throw into doubt an Oct. 11 poll widely seen as a test of Liberia’s post-civil war recovery.
“The final ruling has not been made yet,” a senior official at Liberia’s election commission told Reuters, adding the court was still studying the residency clause in the constitution.
Johnson-Sirleaf, who became Africa’s first elected female head of state in a 2005 election, is seen as the favourite in the West African state’s presidential contest, which pits her against main opposition figure Winston Tubman and others.
But the Movement for Progressive Change, a local opposition party, launched a legal challenge to her candidacy after a referendum in August in which voters rejected a government proposal to delay the vote and ease the residency rules.
The constitution lists three conditions to run as president, including a rule that candidates are ineligible unless they have been “resident in the Republic 10 years prior to his election, provided that the president and the vice-president shall not come from the same county”.
Johnson-Sirleaf had spent years in exile during Liberia’s civil war, and only returned in 2003. The residency requirement was waived for the 2005 poll to allow candidates who had been out of the country during the fighting to run.
Analysts said a court decision to ban the six candidates could undermine Liberia’s fragile gains at stability.
“It is out of the question,” said Lydie Boka, manager of StrategiCo risk consultancy. “Liberia wants to show the rule of law, but it must balance regional stability. I suspect there will be some kind of exceptional waiver by the court.”
The August referendum may have proven a blunder by Johnson-Sirleaf, as its rejection paved the way for the legal challenge.
“It was a bit dangerous,” said Boka. “She was hoping for something that didn’t happen.”
The legal challenge led the Supreme Court on Tuesday to order six out of the 16 candidates — including Tubman — to stop campaigning, a decision that was since reversed on purely procedural grounds without a ruling on the main issue.
“The decision (to lift the stay order on campaigning) is based on the petitional failure to file a legal brief to the full bench of the Supreme Court of Liberia giving reasons why the presidential candidates should halt all political activities pending the final ruling of the Court,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Johnny Lewis said.
Liberia is among the world’s poorest countries with its infrastructure still in tatters after a 1989-2003 civil war.
A smooth election is seen as key to attracting further investment in its mining sector, Liberia’s main hope for an economic recovery. Its iron-ore riches have drawn majors like ArcellorMittal and BHP Billiton .