The Polls Just Closed in Sierra Leone. Here’s What You Need to Know.

By Jennifer Raymond Dresden, Ph.D.

Today, Sierra Leoneans headed to the polls for the fifth time since the country returned to multiparty elections in the 1990s.  The incumbent, Ernest Bai Koroma, of the All People’s Congress (APC) is constitutionally barred from running for a third term, so one way or another the country is about to get a new president.

The front-runners in the contest are Koroma’s hand-picked successor Samura Kamara for the APC, Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), and Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella of the newly-formed National Grand Coalition (NGC).  With much at stake for the small West African country, today’s election is critical.

For the last 30 years, it has seemed as though Sierra Leone just can’t catch a break.  Severe economic decline in the 1980s gave way to horrific civil war and state failure in the 1990s.  The war saw a cycle of civilian and military governments until a peace agreement and massive international assistance supported stabilization in the 2000s.  Just when Sierra Leone appeared to be on a brighter path—peaceful electoral turnover, major economic growth as infrastructure was rebuilt and extractive industries came back on line, and the general positive effects of a political culture with relatively high social capital and religious tolerance—the Ebola epidemic struck.

The virus was devastating.  More than 14,000 Sierra Leoneans were infected and 4,000 died of the disease.  12,000 children lost their primary caregiver.  In a society where community is central to everyday life, the limits on public gatherings and even funerals that the Ebola response required were jarring and painful.  Then came the news that millions of dollars in international assistance to fight the disease could not be accounted for.  Since then, the economy has faced new challenges and rising prices have made living conditions even more difficult for the poor.  Inflation reached 19% last year

This is the atmosphere in which Sierra Leoneans are choosing their next government.  Here are three things to keep in mind as the electoral process goes forward.


In Sierra Leone, Elections = Change (sort of)

Elections have been critical moments of change over the last 25 years.  In 1996, civil society activists pushed for elections in hopes of replacing a military government that seemed unable (or unwilling) to bring an end to the country’s brutal civil war.  In 2002, elections heralded the end of that war and the chance to rebuild.  In 2007, voters tossed out the incumbent government in favor of Koroma, then a young, charismatic candidate from the opposition.  Only in 2012, when the economy was growing and the country seemed to be rebounding, was the winning message one of “staying the course” and Koroma re-elected.

Continued corruption and the Ebola crisis did severe damage to Koroma’s popularity, however.  In the 2012 election, a billboard over one of Freetown’s central roadways featured a beatific photo of Koroma with the words “This is my President, with whom I am well pleased” and a dove floating over him.  Such billboards would have far less resonance now.  For the APC, it is probably just as well that Koroma was not on the ballot today.

Opposition candidates are counting on this voter frustration to help them into office, but ethnic politics and patronage networks still play a significant role in elections.  Whether the APC has been able to turn out enough of its core supporters to counter this widespread disappointment is a key question.


The Traditional Two-Party System is Being Challenged (again)

The SLPP and APC have dominated Sierra Leone’s politics since independence.  The two parties have deep ties to Sierra Leone’s geographically-concentrated ethnic communities.  Both are also able to rely on networks of traditional leaders at home and diaspora supporters abroad.

This election, however, traditional support bases have fractured.  The SLPP candidate, Maada Bio, is running for a second time after being defeated by Koroma in 2012.  The party has suffered severe factional infighting for years and Maada Bio has not been able to reunite supporters behind his candidacy.  As a result, former SLPP aspirant Yumkella broke from the party and formed the NGC.  A former high-ranking United Nations official, Yumkella has proven popular and politically savvy.  With him in the race, it is unlikely that any one candidate will have reached the 55% threshold needed to win outright and a run-off is likely later this month.

Yet Yumkella’s candidacy may not actually herald the end of the two party system in Sierra Leone.  The country has both a presidential system and a legislature with single-member districts elected by plurality.  Over the long run, both of these institutions tend (generally speaking) towards maintaining systems dominated by two parties.

Additionally, potential third parties have emerged before.  In 2007, Charles Margai and the newly-formed People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) split the SLPP’s presidential vote and helped Koroma get elected in the second round.  Margai is something of political royalty in Sierra Leone (both his father and uncle led the country after independence), and yet even he could not maintain a third force in the country’s electoral politics.  By the 2012 election, the PMDC’s influence was negligible.

Yumkella may challenge the party system, but it’s too soon to know whether he will bring about fundamental change.  History has a tendency to repeat itself.


Democracy is at a Critical Moment

Finally, today’s election represents an important test for the overall health of Sierra Leone’s democracy.  While the country has managed to weather severe crises without abandoning the fundamental institutions of democracy, stress lines have appeared.  Koroma resisted the temptation to amend the constitution to remove term limits, but only after supporters floated the idea to test its popularity.  Opposition parties challenged the impartiality of the National Election Commission during the prior election, a sign of weak faith in the institutions tasked with managing the electoral process.  The Koroma government has also been worryingly heavy-handed at times, particularly with regard to journalists, and the APC even attempted to keep Yumkella out of the race.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the APC headed a single-party government remembered by many for its authoritarian crackdowns on opposition.  A constant claim by opposition leaders has been that the APC is looking to return to those roots.  How the APC government responds to this year’s challenging electoral environment will be a key indicator of how far Sierra Leone has traveled on its road to democratic consolidation.

Given that a run-off seems likely, today’s election will probably not be the final word on this question.  Yet how all parties conduct themselves between now and the swearing-in of a new president will be an important measure of the country’s democratic health.


Dr. Jennifer Raymond Dresden is the Associate Director of the Democracy & Governance Program at Georgetown University.