Focus On: Sierra Leone’s General Elections

Dec. 5, 2012, 8:09 p.m.

Citizens of Sierra Leone headed to the polls on November 17, 2012. Incumbent President Ernest KOROMA of the All People’s Congress defeated challenger Julius Maada BIO of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). KOROMA’s party, the APC, also gained a parliamentary majority. This is the Republic’s third national election since the end of the violent civil war in 2002, and a significant step in the country’s move towards a consolidated peace.

Past Elections Two general elections have taken place since the end of the civil war in 2002. The 2002 elections occurred four months after a formal declaration of peace, and the SLPP won 70 percent of votes. International observer groups like the Carter Center voiced serious concerns about political bias in the selection of election officials, and indictments against three NEC commissioners.[i] The biggest obstacle to a fair and competitive election was voter registration; approximately 450,000 people had been displaced during the war, and many voters were turned away from the polls due to problematic voter registration lists. Yet considering the country had just emerged from civil war, the election was relatively peaceful. In the 2007 general elections the APC defeated the SLPP, with 59 to 43 parliamentary seats, respectively. International observers noted the election was generally violence-free, but with a few noteworthy cases of intimidation during campaigning and Election Day. The SLPP conceded defeat to the APC without any major conflict, but due to problems of over-voting the NEC annulled votes from 477 polling stations in SLPP strongholds, a decision met with controversy. [ii]

Main Candidates In the presidential contest, incumbent President Ernest KOROMA of the All People’s Congress (APC) competed against Julius Maada BIO of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).  Although a total of nine presidential candidates were certified by the National Electoral Commission (NEC), the contest centered on the APC and SLPP. KOROMA has served as President since 2007. On Saturday he ran for his second term in office. Campaigning under the slogan “I will Do More,” KOROMA’s platform focused on economic development initiatives such as enhancing national electricity, developing the country’s transportation system, and improving the economic productivity of agriculture and fisheries.  Julius Maada BIO served as a member of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) ruling the country from 1992­-1996, after him and several other military officers staged a coup in 1992 ending the 14-year rule of the APC.[iii] Subsequently in 1996, BIO overthrew the then-president, Valentine Strasser, assuming the Presidency before calling for elections. Opposition candidate Charles Francis Kondo MARGAI also ran in the presidential contest. MARGAI is the leader of the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), the third major political party after the APC and SLPP.

Political System Sierra Leone’s present Constitution was drafted in 1991, in a move away from the previous one-party constitution. Presidents are directly elected in a majoritarian first-past-the-post system. For legislative elections, in 1996 the government established a party-list proportional representation system, which in 2007 was replaced with a constituency-based system. This arrangement consists of single-member districts encouraging candidates to campaign on broader platforms to cater to their constituents. As demonstrated in this election, this system comes at the cost of minority representation. In single member districts, voters typically vote for candidates who they perceive to have a decent chance of winning. This hinders the representation of marginalized groups, such as women. In September, an attempt to pass legislation enforcing a 30 percent women’s quota in parliament failed. Currently women occupy 13 percent of parliamentary seats. In this election, only 6.5 percent of legislative seats were contested for by women (38 out of 586),[iv] and female candidates have also reported being threatened and intimidated by men.[v] Sierra Leone has been regionally and ethnically fragmented since independence in 1961, and ethnicity continues to influence electoral politics in the country. In reaction to dominance of the SLPP in the early post-independence period, and by extension, the political dominance of the Mende ethnic group, northern politicians formed the APC. In a country of thirteen ethnic groups, the Mende and the Temne collectively make up over 60 percent of the population.[vi] Both groups constitute the largest political support bases in the North (Temne) and the South (Mende). Other ethnic groups politically coordinate with the Mende and Temne. In spite of regional loyalties, states exist where voter loyalties are less predictable, and more of a tossup. The eastern mining district of Kono was a wildcard in this election. This election also marked the NEC’s initiation of biometric voter registration (BVR), an attempt to minimize multiple voter registration and reduce it to 0.01 percent. Between January 23 and March 26, 2012 voters were biometrically registered through four 15-day phases.  BVR allowed only voters presenting a Voter’s Card to vote on November 17.

Election Day The NEC declared incumbent Ernest Bai KOROMA of the APC as winner of the presidential election, with 1,314,881 valid votes being cast in his favor, or 58.7 percent—exceeding the 55 percent of votes required to avoid a run-off with BIO. The international community praised the NEC for peaceful and well organized elections. The APC also won a majority in Parliament, with 8 new seats, while the SLPP lost 3 seats, leaving them with a total of 42 seats in parliament. No other parties were elected into parliament, with all 8 incumbent opposition MPs, from the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), losing their seats. There are 124 seats in Sierra Leone’s parliament, yet candidates contested only 112, as 12 are reserved for Chiefs. Since most Chiefs vote along with the ruling party, their votes will most likely give the APC  79 (67+12) seats in parliament,  3 seats short of a 2/3 majority required to pass key legislation in parliament. However, the NEC is still to announce results for 3 seats. Therefore their outcome will determine whether the APC achieves the 2/3 majority or not .[vii] In spite of the election’s overall success, a few irregularities did take place. In the Western Area five polling stations were annulled due to evidence of over-voting.[viii] Election Day issues included the theft of voter registration slips, which resulted in the arrest of one woman; the arrest of SLPP agents who had allegedly been verifying voters (only NEC members are allowed to do this); a ban on commercial vehicles on polling day, which while making it easier for urban voters to get to the polls by reducing traffic, posed a problem for voters commuting to distant precincts; there were also delays and long lines. Additionally, on Election Day, Julius Maada BIO claimed his party found evidence of ballot-box stuffing and over-voting, an accusation immediately denied by the APC. Additionally, the SLPP accused the NEC of urging voters to vote for specific candidates, but the NEC subsequently denied all allegations.  This led to a recount of votes in the Northern Region, approximately 10 percent of votes cast. As tension-ridden as the recount was, it disproved these accusations and the SLPP accepted the results.[ix] Problems also arose during the pre-election period. Candidates boycotted two out of three public debates. In October, KOROMA boycotted the presidential debate on grounds of refusing to “share the same platform” with BIO.  Subsequently in early November, KOROMA and BIO and five other candidates boycotted the presidential debate. Presidential debates were institutionalized to encourage voters to be more informed of candidate platforms and thereby strengthen the democratic process. Reports have also emerged of monetary incentives to mobilize support at political rallies in the pre-election period.[x] SLPP Chairman John Benjamin denied these allegations and in turn, accused the APC of vote-buying. Victor Foh, the APC Secretary, has denied this.

What Next? BIO has reportedly claimed the results are unreflective of the will of Sierra Leoneans. The SLPP then urged its members to boycott parliamentary and local council proceedings until further notice, demanding an independent international assessment of the election results. The international community has requested that the SLPP address its grievances through legal channels. Yet on December 3, 2012, the APC and SLPP released a joint press statement after talks between leaders of both parties. [xi] Thus there is still hope that the SLPP and APC can work together to govern Sierra Leone and avoid a political stalemate.      

[i] The Carter Center. 2003. Observing the 2002 Sierra Leone Elections. Atlanta, GA: Carter Center.

[ii] Roopanarine, Les. 2012. “Sierra Leone’s Elections Explained,” The Guardian, November 15, http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/nov/15/sierra-leone-elections-explained

[iii] http://www.juliusmaadabio.com/why.htm

[iv] IPU (Inter-Parliamentary Union). 2012.  “Women in National Parliaments,” October 31, http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm

[v] IRIN. 2012. “Sierra Leone: Ethnicity Trumps Policy in Upcoming Polls,” http://www.irinnews.org/printreport.aspx?reportid=96793

[vi] CIA. 2009. The World Factbook: Sierra Leone. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sl.html

[vii] AFP. 2012. “Sierra Leone Ruling Party Wins Majority in Parliament,” November 28,  http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iMki6BaWsxrMm_lsSyx2qQpr8Q6Q?docId=CNG.9eaa6565aa8583a21c678ce2b495b74d.521

[viii] Awoko. 2012. “With only 5 Stations of Over Voting, Thorpe says… ‘Every vote has been Counted’,” November 23, http://www.awoko.org/2012/11/26/with-only-5-stations-of-over-voting-thorpe-says-%E2%80%A6-%E2%80%9Cevery-vote-has-been-counted%E2%80%9D-3/

[ix] Cocorioko. 2012. “NEWS FLASH: Northern Region Recount Proves No Ballot-Stuffing or Over-voting,” November 23, http://www.cocorioko.net/?p=40624

[x] IRIN, 2012.

[xi] The Patriotic Vanguard. 2012. “APC/SLPP Press Statement,” December 3, http://www.thepatrioticvanguard.com/spip.php?article6810

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