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Thoughts on Sierra Leone’s 2012 Presidential Elections

Thoughts on Sierra Leone’s 2012 Presidential Elections

In less than three weeks, Sierra Leoneans will go the polls to elect a president, parliamentarians and local government officials. The contest that is most keenly watched and has raised the most heat is that of the presidency, which, because of its winner-takes-all character, will give the victor enormous powers to chart the country’s development path in the next five years.

Each of the two main parties, the All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), is convinced that it has the numbers to clinch the top job, with APC partisans confident of victory on the first ballot.

It is difficult to predict election outcomes in countries where there is no tradition of scientific polls that gauge voter preferences. Crowd turnout at rallies may provide insights, but can be misleading as Solomon Berewa (the SLPP’s previous flag bearer) found out in 2007.

The situation is more complicated when the electorate is divided into two relatively equal ethno-regional blocks.  In Sierra Leone’s three previous elections, two (1996 and 2007) went into a run-off, and in the third (2002, which was a post-war election), the incumbent won handsomely in the first round with 70 percent of the votes.

Are we in a 2002 moment when the rhetoric of peace consolidation resonated widely with voters and gave the incumbent an overwhelming advantage over his challengers? Does the current government’s rhetoric or narrative of development enjoy the same cross-country appeal as that of peace consolidation in 2002? Do ethno-regional sentiments still weigh heavily in the choices of voters? And do recent shifts in electoral demographics render the ethno-regional calculations of parties obsolete?

In this piece, I interrogate the contradictory claims of the two main parties using information from past voting behaviour and insights from current dynamics. The aim is to inject some “realism” into expectations by highlighting a variety of plausible paths and challenges that parties face in achieving desired outcomes.

Let’s start with the SLPP. The source for the SLPP’s electoral optimism can be traced to two issues that party chieftains believe are unlikely to be repeated in 2012: the schism that led to a third party, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), in the South-East, and cancellation of votes from more than 400 polling stations in the party’s stronghold of Kailahun. The PMDC took 41% of the votes in the South and 15% in the East in the 2007 election. Since the PMDC has lost its potency, SLPP partisans are convinced that the PMDC’s voters will return home and give the SLPP the critical edge to win on the first or second ballot in 2012.

It is true that if Charles Margai’s PMDC votes were added to Solomon Berewa’s, the latter would have won the 2007 election with 52 percent of the votes. However, this view fails to take into account the profound change that has occurred in the electoral demographics with the introduction of the biometric voter registration system. Under the biometric system, Sierra Leone is being transformed into a lopsided bi-polar polity. In 2007, the ratio of registered voters in the North and Western Area to the South and East was 55:45; in 2012, according to the National Electoral Commission’s biometric registration figures for the three phases of the registration exercise, the North/Western Area—South/East difference has risen to more than 18 points, producing a ratio of 59.35 : 40.65.

All the three districts in the East (Kailahun, Kenema and Kono) lost voters in the biometric system of 2012; Bo and Moyamba made slight gains in the South, but Bonthe and Pujehun registered losses. The East lost a staggering 72,355 voters, with Kailahun losing 21 percent or 39, 528 of its 2007 registered voters. In contrast, all districts in the North and Western Area gained voters, with Western Rural gaining 45 percent or 51, 179 new voters. If Kono, which seems to have strongly tilted towards the APC after the 2008 local council elections, is removed from the South-East voting bloc, we are dealing with a ratio of 65.46 : 34.54.

Over-voting was observed in Kailahun, Pujehun and Bonthe in previous elections. In 1996, the elections office simply eliminated the excess votes, giving these districts a 100% voter turnout, which was far higher than the national average. In 2007, only Kailahun experienced over-voting, and the elections office cancelled the results from the polling stations where this occurred. The key question is this: have some districts in the East and South been guilty of both over-registration and over-voting?

If the 2012 biometric voter registration list is used (voting turnout has tended to be relatively equal across regions, except for a few districts that have experienced over-voting), adding Margai’s (PMDC) share of the South and East votes to Berewa’s votes would have given the latter only 47 percent of the vote; if Margai’s Western Area votes are included (PMDC had a diverse following that transcended Southeasterners in Freetown), Berewa’s total would have been 48.6 pecent.

This suggests that simply maximizing votes in the South and East will not be enough for Julius Maada Bio to win the presidency. He can force a run-off, but will not win without improving upon Berewa’s performance in the North and Western Area. A 50 percent plus one majority in favour of Bio will require a 40 percent share of the Western Area vote (Berewa received 31 percent) and at least 18 percent of the Northern vote (Berewa received 15 percent). If the goal is to win on the first ballot, then Bio’s share of the Northern vote will have to be more than 30 percent.

The possibility of Bio achieving these results cannot be ruled out in the absence of credible polls. However, such spectacular feats in the Western Area and the North will require that he also wins back the mass of Kono voters in the East who switched to the APC in the 2008 local elections, as well as check the inroads that the APC is reported to be making in Kailahun, Kenema and Pujehun as an incumbent party with resources to undertake visible vote-catching projects and activities. My impression, after three months of staying in the country, is that Bio is less popular than his party; he has a difficult path to travel to cause an upset.

What about the APC? There is high expectation among the party faithful of a landslide victory that is comparable to what Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP achieved in 2002. How realistic is this expectation? The 2002 landslide can be explained by two factors. The first was the trauma of the war and voters’ desire for, and association of, peace (the United Nations and British military presence) with the policies of the incumbent government. The second was the collapse of the two main parties in the North, the United National People’s Party and the People’s Democratic Party, and the absorption of a large number of their leaders into the SLPP. The APC in 2002 was still in the process of reinventing itself and did not offer the kind of virulent opposition that it has received from the SLPP between 2007 and 2012.

The APC in 2012 faces an energized SLPP that accuses the government of undermining the assumed national cohesion of 2002-7 by removing Southeasterners from top public sector jobs and establishing a Northern-dominated government. This discourse is very strong among core supporters of the party in Freetown, who are generally dismissive of even the positive developments the country is experiencing under the current government. The discourse of this group resonates with a large part of the 31 percent of voters in the Western Area who supported Berewa during the first and second rounds of the 2007 elections. This should not be surprising as it is in Freetown that competition for posts and resources is fiercest.

The APC has countered this discourse by pointing to the government’s development record, which, it argues, is ethnicity and region-blind. Road construction, the free health care for special groups, and agricultural support schemes are visible in most parts of the country. The implication of this argument is that ‘inclusive and transformative development’ compensates for the shortcomings in ‘inclusive government’.

Has the electorate across the country bought the rhetoric of transformative and inclusive development? This is not the place to evaluate the impact of the government’s development programme. In the larger scheme of things, using any socio-economic yardstick, Sierra Leone is without doubt very far from being a transformed economy, society or polity.

However, what I have found in my three months in the country is that people compare what was there before 2007 and what is there now. In Freetown, most people I spoke to complain about the high cost of living, but were also quick to point to the now fairly regular electricity supply (thanks, perhaps, to the raining season; I went to bed without light only once in three months!), the number of roads under construction, and the free health care, which were not there when the SLPP was in power. My sense is that Koroma is hugely popular in the city—he seems to be much more popular than his party. In a country with a low literacy rate and countless broken promises from politicians, voters attach less importance to manifestos or promises than to what parties actually do in office. On this score, I feel that the government is winning the argument in Freetown in a big way.

Does the government’s argument enjoy support in the South and East? The kind of landslide expected by party activists is only possible if it makes substantial inroads in the South and East. Maximizing votes in the North and Western Area will not be enough to achieve this feat.

Let’s look at some numbers and possible paths or outcomes. If Ernest Bai Koroma repeats his first round performance of 2007 in 2012, he is likely to get about 47 percent of the votes, which suggests a run-off. If he repeats his second round performance of 2007 when the votes of the PMDC and other parties were transferred to him, he will get about 56 percent of the vote, avoiding a run-off. A third path will be if he repeats his second round performance in 2007 in the North (85 percent) and Western Area (69 percent), maximizes the Kono vote (to say 70 percent) and repeats his first round 2007 performances in the South, Kailahun and Kenema. This will yield about 54 percent of the vote, which is still short of the magic 55 perent to avoid a run-off. If he raises his votes in the Western Area to 75 percent and 90 percent in the North (Northern parties obtained 91 percent of the votes in the first round of the 1996 presidential election) and assumptions for Kono and other districts in the East and South remain the same as in the previous scenario, he is likely to get 57 percent of the votes and win on the first ballot.

This suggests that the landslide that the party expects can only happen if Koroma exceeds his second round performance of 2007. With the rupture of the alliance with the PMDC, this will amount to the East and South voting for the government’s avowed development record in large numbers.

I offer three scenarios by way of conclusion. First, there could be a run-off; however, it might be a different kind of run-off—one in which the front-runner scores more than 50 percent of the votes and does not require new votes to win in the second round. The absence of a strong third party in 2012 makes it possible for a winner to score more than 50 percent of the votes on the first ballot. Second, it is also very possible for Koroma to win on the first ballot, but this may not be a landslide. Third, a landslide will occur only if the reported inroads the party claims to have made in the East and South translate into real votes.

Over to you voters.

By Yusuf Bangura

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