Author: Jamie Hitchen
Site of publication: World Politics Review
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: May 2023
On June 24, Sierra Leone’s 3.3 million voters will head to the polls for elections that will determine their next president, parliamentary representatives and local councilors. And if recent elections are a reliable indicator, turnout will be high: The country’s last three polls have seen an average participation rate of 82 percent.
Those voting in the presidential election will do so with a degree of familiarity with the major contestants. The two leading candidates and their running mates remain unchanged from 2018. However, while Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party, or SLPP, was the main opposition candidate in 2018, this time he is seeking reelection to a second term as the incumbent president. Samura Kamara—who in 2018 was handpicked by outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma as the candidate for the All People’s Congress, or APC—is once again the party’s flagbearer, after winning the endorsement of its delegates at the APC’s national convention in February. Kamara secured the party’s nomination despite facing an ongoing court case for corruption and misallocation of funds relating to the renovation of a government office in the U.S. during his tenure as foreign minister in the 2010s.
Although the APC has been embroiled in a drawn-out—and court mediated—internal dispute over internal democracy and accountability among its leadership, it will nevertheless represent the greatest challenge to the SLPP in June’s election. Smaller splinter parties that performed well in 2018—notably the National Grand Coalition, or NGC, which won four seats and 6.8 percent of the presidential vote that year, and the Coalition for Change, which won eight seats and 3.5 percent of the vote—are no longer relevant forces this time around. On April 24, the NGC announced a formal alliance with the SLPP that will see the party back Bio’s reelection bid, although they will still field their own candidates for parliamentary races. However, the switch to a district-level proportional representation system for this year’s legislative polls, with a vote-share threshold of 11.9 percent required to win a seat in a district, will reduce their—and other smaller parties’—chances of electoral success.
Since 2018, his administration’s flagship focus has been on improving access to and the quality of education. He has also passed progressive legislation to abolish the death penalty, strengthen community land rights, improve press freedom and advance the rights of women. For all of this, he has received international plaudits.
But despite these efforts, Sierra Leone’s score on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index has declined from 66 to 63 over the past five years, on a scale of 100. Furthermore, the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act, which was passed last year, did not end up mandating a much-discussed 30 percent quota for women in parliament. Nor does it bind the president to meeting a similar quota in the appointment of Cabinet officials, although it encourages “due consideration” to be given to the inclusion of women.
Indeed, despite well-established ethno-regional loyalties that have historically shaped voting patterns, concerns over the economy are likely to determine the election’s outcome. Economic conditions in the country have worsened in the past few years due to global factors like coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and domestic ones like Sierra Leone’s heavy dependence on imports and incoherent policymaking.
Although the campaign does not officially start until a month before the election, Bio has already undertaken “working tours” to several districts to extol the accomplishments of his first term in office
Bio’s administration is now on its third finance minister and third central bank governor since 2018, yet consumer price inflation has increased 41.5 percent year on year as of March 2023. The Leone, Sierra Leone’s currency, lost 39 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar last year alone. A July 2022 redenomination effort by the central bank failed to arrest the Leone’s slide, which has continued into 2023. Economic hardships were a key driver of protests that took place last August in Freetown, the capital, and several other towns in northern districts of the country. Those protests led to the deaths of six police officers and at least 21 civilians.
The parties’ manifestos are expected before the election campaigns officially begin on May 23. Voters are waiting to see if the parties and their candidates present a robust and detailed plan to address systemic economic challenges. Improved road infrastructure and the provision of water and better health care services are other areas where citizens expect to see tangible improvements over the next five years.The immediate task ahead, however, is to ensure that the preferences of Sierra Leoneans who do cast their ballot are reflected in a free, fair, credible and accepted election.
Following a decision in October 2022 by the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone, or ECSL, to move away from a “first past the post” system, parliamentarians and local councilors will be elected using a district-level proportional representation approach, last used in the immediate aftermath of the country’s civil war in 2002. The decision was made at Bio’s direction, and a challenge to the move’s constitutional legality led by senior APC figures was dismissed by the Supreme Court in January. Although some argue that the new system can ensure more nuanced nationwide representation of elected officials, the timing of the decision reinforces the notion that politics was also a motivating factor.
The motivation for the change can be traced back to the 2018 elections, in which Bio’s SLPP secured 1 percent fewer votes in the legislative polls than the APC, but ended up with 19 fewer seats in parliament. As a result, for the first time in the post-civil war era, the party that won the presidency did not secure the most seats in parliament, until a court ruling in May 2019 controversially delivered the SLPP a majority when it reversed the results of 10 parliamentary contests initially won by APC candidates.
Meanwhile, the opposition’s concerns that controversial 2021 census figures recording significant—and unlikely—population increases in SLPP strongholds would be used to allocate seats under the proportional representation system were not realized. The ECSL’s decision to use an average of the 2015 and 2021 census figures appeared to produce an agreeable compromise.
Though these developments are significant, the key issue that will be at the forefront of many voters’ minds during this election is the economy
According to recent polls, the ECSL maintains broad credibility with the wider public, with somewhere between 50 percent and 74 percent expressing their trust in the body. Nevertheless, the APC continues to express concerns that the election watchdog is subject to political influence, an attitude shared by the party’s hard-line supporters.
Concerns about the impartiality of the judiciary are more pronounced, with the High Court’s decision in 2019 to reverse the results of parliamentary elections in nine constituencies, rather than rerunning them as the law appeared to proscribe, remaining a divisive topic. Just 38 percent of citizens said they had some or a lot of trust in the courts in a 2020 poll by Afrobarometer. With further election-related litigation likely to follow the June 2023 elections, there will be increased scrutiny of judicial verdicts.
Bio will need to increase his share of the vote by an increase of almost 12 percent from 2018 figures to reach the 55 percent threshold required for a first-round victory. The alliance with the NGC can boost his odds of doing so, but with a flailing economy and the entrenched nature of ethno-regional voting patterns, it might be an uphill task. A runoff appears the most likely scenario if the June 24 elections are free and fair, but a prolonged race could further heighten political tensions and put more pressure on Sierra Leone’s still nascent democratic institutions.