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Lopsided Bipolarity: Lessons from the 2012 Elections

Lopsided Bipolarity: Lessons from the 2012 Elections

The results of the 2012 elections confirm a point in my previous piece (“Thoughts on Sierra Leone’s 2012 Presidential Elections”) that Sierra Leone is being transformed into a lopsided bipolar polity. Bipolarity in this context refers to a situation in which two ethnic groups or ethno-regional blocs dominate politics and influence voting behaviour. It does not mean that every person in each of the contending blocs votes the same way, but the majority often do. The two groups or blocs can be relatively equal, as in Fiji, Guyana and Trinidad, or unequal, as in Rwanda, Burundi, Belgium and Latvia.

In a 15-country study I coordinated at the UN Research Institute for Social Development (Y. Bangura (ed.), Ethnic Inequalities and Public Sector Governance, Palgrave Macmillan 2006), we showed that for countries with highly fragmented ethnic structures, such as Tanzania, in which no group has the numerical strength to dominate politics or construct a regional coalition for governance, successful parties are likely to be substantially multi-ethnic, producing a highly representative public sector. The difficult cases are countries with bipolar or tripolar (Nigeria, Malaysia) ethnic cleavages, which tend to generate a politics of exclusion and militant or zero-sum types of contestation. We argued that achieving stability and cohesion in these types of countries will require ethnicity-sensitive institutions and policies.

Prior to the 2012 elections, most informed analysts would agree with the characterization of Sierra Leone as a relatively equal bipolar polity. This old model of bipolarity can be summarized as follows: the two main ethnic groups, the Mende and Temne, are roughly equal in size, accounting for about 60 percent of the population; the two groups are also geographically separated, with the Mende located in the South and East, and the Temne in the North and Western Area. The fact that the two largest groups vastly outnumber other groups in their respective regions may explain why most groups in the South and East coalesce around the Mende, whereas those in the North revolve around the Temne. The voter registration list of 2007, which showed a ratio of 55:45 for the registered voters in the North and Western Area vis-à-vis the South and East, seemed to support this model of equi-bipolarity.

However, the 2012 biometric voter registration list, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to over-register voters, has produced a ratio of 59.35 : 40.65 for the two ethno-regional blocs, suggesting a lopsided bipolarity in favour of the North-Western Area. The East lost more than 72,000 voters, with Kailahun (where the ballots in 477 polling stations were voided in 2007 because of over-voting) losing 21 percent of its 2007 registered voters. SLPP partisans have always maintained that the cancellation of those Kailahun ballots cost them “hundreds of thousands of votes”, which would have tilted the outcome of the election in their favour.

However, any close look at the 2007 registration and voting data for Kailahun will show that this is a spurious claim. If we assume that “hundreds of thousands” is at least 200,000, it means that the SLPP had 325,414 votes in Kailahun (it received 125,414 votes in the second round), when the total number of registered voters in that district was 185,583.

The key question is whether the lopsidedness in voting power between the two ethno-regional blocs is a recent phenomenon, or whether it has been there for some time but suppressed since 1996 by over-registration of voters in the South and East. It is difficult to believe that this lopsidedness will be corrected in a future registration exercise, as some have argued, when voters in the South-East will register in large numbers. Interestingly, the ethno-regional lopsidedness has also been revealed in data on middle school enrolment. Figures released for the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) for 2012 show that the North and Western Area accounted for 63.5 percent of the 82,907 students who took the examination as opposed to 36.48 percent for the South and East.  The North accounted for 30.5 percent and the Western Area 33 percent, compared to 21.4 percent for the East and 15 percent for the South. Such figures should caution those who believe that the sharp reduction of registered voters in the South and East was because people in those two regions failed to register for the 2012 elections.

The competitive elections of 1967, 1996 and 2007 showed a strong pattern of ethno-regional voting. It was only in 2002 that a single party won a landslide, or 70 percent of the votes. The 2012 results show that voting behavior is strongly ethno-regional. Therefore, analysis of the elections results will have to start from the lopsidedness in the electoral demographics, which the biometric system has revealed.

In an equi-bipolar electorate, it is difficult for a winner to get more than 55 percent of the votes on the first ballot. However, Ernest Koroma has been able to avoid a run-off because of the lopsidedness in the regional distribution of voters in favour of his traditional strongholds (the North and Western Area), his achievement of a comfortable majority in Kono in the East, and penetration of his opponent’s strongholds in Kailahun (22.7% in 2012 versus 5% during the first round in 2007), Kenema (18.7% in 2012 versus 12% in 2007), Pujehun (15.5% in 2012 versus 2.87% in 2007) and Moyamba (26% in 2012 versus 18% in 2007). He also raised his share of the votes in Bo (16.7% versus 10.9% in 2007) and Bonthe (11.7% versus 3% in 2007). Indeed, Koroma improved upon his 2007 performance in all the 14 electoral districts.

One major lesson of the results is that even though the regional distribution of voters favoured Koroma, he was only able to avoid a run-off when his votes in the South and the Eastern districts of Kailahun and Kenema were added to the votes he received in the North, Western Area and Kono. In 2007, he could not have won the second round ballot without Charles Margai’s PMDC votes in the South and East. However, Koroma did not need the PMDC alliance in 2012. Amazingly, he scored more votes in Kailahun, Kenema and the four Southern districts in 2012 than when he had Margai’s help in the second round of 2007. The big loser in the breakup of the alliance is the PMDC, which lost all its parliamentary seats to the SLPP and can boast of only one local council member in Pujehun.

In 2012, if Koroma had relied only on the North and Western Area, he would have scored only 48.6 percent of the vote; adding Kono would have raised his share of the vote to 51.6 percent; his votes in Kailahun and Kenema gets him to 54.5 percent. It is only when the Southern votes are added that he crosses the magic 55 percent that guarantees him victory on the first ballot. This suggests that maximizing votes in the North, Western Area and Kono will only deliver a second ballot victory.

I commend the framers of the 1991 constitution, which requires a winning candidate to score more than 55 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off. In a bipolar polity, this rule forces candidates to construct winning coalitions beyond their traditional strongholds. To the best of my knowledge, Sierra Leone is the only country that has this 55 percent rule on diversity management in electing leaders. In Nigeria, the winner in a presidential election must obtain at least 25 percent of the votes in two thirds of the states.

The results show that there is a strong SLPP presence in Kono, which even Koroma’s Kono running mate, Sam Sumana, was unable to comprehensively dislodge. Kono seems to be the only “battleground district” in the country, if such a characterization is applicable in a presidential system that is based on the popular vote, which forces candidates to maximize votes everywhere. I suspect that the ethnic Kono vote was split almost equally between Koroma and Bio. Northern parties have always performed well in Kono because of the large number of Northerners in this diamond-rich district. These Northern voters may have tilted the balance in favour of Koroma to give him a comfortable win of 58 percent in the district. In 1996, the United National People’s Party and the People’s Democratic Party (both Northern parties) received more than a quarter of the Kono vote. In the first round election of 2007, when Sam Sumana’s influence in the district was minimal (he lost the parliamentary contest in his own area), Koroma received 35% of the Kono vote.

What accounts for Koroma’s respectable numbers in Kailahun, Kenema, Moyamba and Pujehun? One interesting highlight is that Koroma is the first president in our history to ask voters to judge him on his development record. This is a boon for our young democracy as voters will in future be encouraged to transcend ethnic loyalties and assess leaders on public policy issues.

The Old APC of Siaka Stevens and Joseph Momoh could not deliver on development and relied on repression and one party elections to stay in power. The key message of Kabbah’s SLPP in 2002 was peace, reconciliation, resettlement and humanitarian assistance–not development. In contrast, Koroma was very confident that his record on road construction, electricity, free health care for special vulnerable groups, and agricultural support schemes in the 149 chiefdoms would trump ethnic loyalties and deliver a large part of the South and East to the party. Any objective evaluation of these programmes will surely find shortcomings, some of them very serious. However, voters tend to compare what was there before 2007 and what is there now.

The results suggest that the expectations of a landslide (he received a comfortable 58.7% of the vote) were largely misplaced, but solid inroads were made in the South-East. We do not have exit polls like those in the United States that gauge voter preferences on a range of issues on polling day. However, it is quite possible that visible infrastructural and social programmes on the ground, however imperfect or incomplete, as well as the large number of defections of prominent SLPP activists to the APC before the elections may have convinced many people to vote for Koroma and his party. However, perceptions by South-Eastern elites that Koroma was running a Northern-dominated government may have also blunted the appeal of the development discourse among the majority of South-Eastern voters. This suggests that the APC can only get a landslide victory if it runs a more-inclusive government. It certainly needs the support of South-Eastern voters to avoid a run-off.

Why did the SLPP perform so poorly—scoring only 37.4 percent of the votes in the presidential election? What lessons can the party draw from the new reality of lopsided bipolarity? Bio’s 37.4 percent share of the vote is the worst performance by an SLPP flag bearer in any competitive election. Solomon Berewa, who lost the elections in 2007, received 38.3% of the vote on the first ballot and 45.4 percent in the second round. The appropriate comparison should actually be Bio’s first round performance (there was no strong third party in 2012) and Berewa’s second round performance when the third party had been eliminated from the race.

The results suggest that the party gambled very badly on its flag bearer. In an equi-bipolar electorate, a party can rely largely on its stronghold and hope for a few decisive votes from its opponent’s stronghold to clinch victory. Both the APC and SLPP had historically used this strategy to win elections, which explains why the two parties are still largely ethno-regional institutions. However, in a lopsided bipolar electorate that favours the North-West, this strategy is no longer feasible for the SLPP. The party needs to get out of its ethno-regional cocoon and effectively engage voters in the North and Western Area if it wants to bounce back to power. This requires a flag bearer with cross-regional appeal, which Julius Maada Bio was unable to provide.

The results in the North and Western Area reveal the following: Bio is less popular than the SLPP, which is less popular than the APC, which is less popular than Koroma. Bio performed worse than the SLPP parliamentarians in the North and Western Area, whereas Koroma outperformed his party’s parliamentarians in the two regions. Many parliamentarians and councilors, especially the councilors in Freetown, may have benefited from Koroma’s popularity to win seats. The magic slogan was 4For4—a call on voters to cast all four ballots for the president, MPs, mayors and councillors (the Freetown city council of 2008-12 behaved like the Old APC—its record of service delivery was a real disaster; 4For4 was a boon for the councillors).

Bio performed worse than Berewa in the North-West. Berewa got 31 percent of the votes in the Western Area, whereas Bio could only manage 26 percent; and Berewa received 15 percent of the Northern vote, while Bio scored a miserable 6 percent in that region. Koroma, on the other hand, increased his performance in the two regions: 72 percent in 2012 as opposed to 69 percent in 2007 in the Western Area; and 87.5 percent in 2012 as opposed to 85 percent in 2007 in the North. The SLPP lost its three parliamentary seats in the North and has been reduced to a regional party. I wonder what the founding fathers would be saying about a party that was founded on the slogan of “one country, one people”.

The SLPP faced two problems in 2012: a self-inflicted unpopular flag bearer; and a very popular opponent in the North and Western Area. The party was unable to ward off the very serious allegations against Bio on matters such as the extra-judicial killing of 29 citizens when he served the regime of the National Provisional Ruling Council in 1992-96; and the sale of passports and award of contracts for helicopter parts for self-enrichment. The interesting thing about the corruption allegations is that it was the former SLPP president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, and Solomon Berewa, the party’s flag bearer in 2007, who first made the allegations against Bio when the party was in power. It did not dawn on the party hierarchy that their persistent allegations of corruption against Koroma’s government could only be credible if they had a clean flag bearer. When the APC lost the confidence of the electorate after its disastrous rule in the 1970s and 1980s, it reinvented itself by electing a leader who was not implicated in the corruption and human rights violations of the party.

The SLPP was not able to explain why Bio got stuck in Canada and could not travel to the United States to honour a series of widely publicized party events. It reinforced the belief among many people that he was denied a visa to the US because of his past human rights record. The party refused to change gear, but its stubbornness only resonated with its core supporters in the South-East and parts of the Western Area. One of the low points in the campaign was when the party tried to rewrite its own history of active participation in the forces that fought against the attempted prolongation of NPRC rule in 1996 by supporting Bio’s ridiculous claim that he is the “father of democracy”.

The results reveal that the SLPP enjoys about a quarter of the votes in the Western Area. It has about 120,000 votes in Freetown, which is the third district after Bo and Kenema that gave Bio the most votes. His Freetown votes are enough to mobilize large crowds during election rallies and give the impression of competitiveness in the capital. Half of these voters will be enough to fill the national stadium (30,000; plus 10-15,000 for the football and track areas) without importing supporters from elsewhere as alleged by APC partisans and commentators. But the SLPP is outnumbered by about three to one by the APC, making this region an APC stronghold.

The APC has consistently relied on a Northern-Krio coalition to win the Western Area, starting from the 1967 elections when the party won all the seats. This coalition accounts for perhaps more than two thirds of the Western Area electorate. The only time the SLPP made inroads in the Western Area was in 1996 when the North fragmented into multiple parties, and in 2002 when voters wanted the incumbent to continue with the policy of peace consolidation, which boiled down to the security provided by the United Nations and British military forces. The APC has been adept at managing the Northern-Krio coalition, such as the informal rule that grants the party’s mayoral ticket to Krio politicians, even though the Krio are outnumbered by Northerners in Freetown. There is no sign of a similar coalition being constructed by the SLPP.

Bipiolarity of whatever type may encourage opportunistic behavior by politicians, which may undermine national cohesion and stability. The situation may even be more dangerous in a lopsided bipolar polity, which may condemn losers to permanent or long-term opposition. Sierra Leone needs to re-engineer its politics in ways that can allow politicians and voters to transcend bipolarity.

There are two diametrically opposed options: power sharing, involving the participation of the SLPP in government; and transforming the main parties into truly multiethnic institutions and setting rules that will facilitate formation of inclusive governments. The first option will be bad for development, since the government will lack the scrutiny and bite of an effective opposition to get things done. There will be no incentive to perform since a share of power will be guaranteed to all key parties. I suspect that the commitment that Koroma has shown in implementing his development agenda can partly be traced to the uncertainty of electoral outcomes and his fear of losing the presidency to the opposition. A government of national unity makes sense only when a country is at war.

The second option is a winner-takes-all settlement with a difference. It aims to transform the key parties into truly multi-ethnic entities and ensure fair distribution of government posts to reflect the ethno-regional character of the country. Transforming the political parties is a medium-to-long term project that will require constitutional reforms.  In the short term, Koroma could start by ensuring that each of our 14 electoral districts has a full cabinet minister. In a cabinet of 24 members, the remaining 10 posts can be filled in such a way that the final distribution gives the South-East at least 40 percent of the total cabinet posts. It should be the prerogative of the President to appoint the ministers, who will serve in his pleasure.

There is no valid reason why some districts can boast of three or four ministers when others have only one or none. With the inroads that the party has made in the East and South, it should not be difficult to find suitable people from those regions. I would even add that the party will go a long way in shedding its image as a Northern institution if it appoints a Southerner as its flag bearer in 2017. Koroma received 149,021 votes in the 6 Mende-dominated South-East districts, compared to its 67,238 votes in Kono. The myth that the SLPP is in the DNA of all Mende, who will never vote for any other party, let alone the APC, has been deflated in two consecutive elections. The ethnic Kono vote is important, especially at the parliamentary level, but readers may be surprised to know that more Mende than Kono voted for Koroma. It is instructive to note that in Nigeria, each of the 36 states is entitled to a cabinet minister, and the ruling party has a policy in which the choice of its flag bearer alternates between the North and South.

A bigger challenge faces the SLPP. Its refusal to accept the elections results, even though all the international and domestic observer groups have given the elections a fairly clean bill of health, and instructions to its MPs and councillors to boycott parliament and local government institutions, puts it on a slippery slope with unpredictable outcomes. I suspect that there will be a backlash from MPs and councillors who will be eager to take up their new jobs as the stalemate continues and the fear of losing their seats becomes imminent. Interestingly, the flag bearer and the top members of the party executive are not prospective holders of national elective offices; therefore, their threshold level for risk taking that can cause instability can be very low.

Quite frankly, the party’s reaction to the results borders on the infantile. It really sounds comical to expect “the international community” to investigate the party’s claims of rigged elections. What about our courts? Why are they being ignored? Which organ of the “international community” should carry out the investigation—the UN, which has already praised the elections and called on all parties to accept the results? ECOWAS? The African Union? The European Union? The Commonwealth? The US? Britain? Since all these entities believe that the elections were largely free and transparent, accepting the SLPP’s demands will mean that these organizations and states will have to negate their own judgement.

Conflict analysis teaches that when a party side-steps formal institutions and legal processes, it may open itself up to capture by more extreme elements who may eventually call the shots, using even violent means to achieve their aims. The Kenya option of violence, paralysis and ultimately power sharing that has been advocated by some party activists may be difficult to replicate because the balance of power and opinion at the domestic and international levels does not favour the SLPP. However, by boycotting our formal institutions and ignoring our courts, the party may well believe that it can still delegitimize the government, discredit public institutions, paralyze the political process, and ultimately get a share of power without firing a bullet or inciting violence. The party should avoid boxing itself into a corner like the RUF and AFRC in the 1990s, whose leaders foolishly believed that they could impose their will on the majority of Sierra Leoneans and the rest of the world.

It is obvious that the SLPP needs a New Direction that will prepare it for governance through the ballot box. Insisting on the current path of non-cooperation will delay the need for critical reflection and blue sky thinking unfettered by old myths and calculations. The party needs to absorb the implications of the new reality of lopsided bipolarity and strategize on how to overcome it. It needs to fully transcend the South-East, which now provides it with all its MPs and local councillors. It cannot afford to be perceived as a protest party that is not ready for governance.

Even though the APC is currently dominant in our politics, it is not immune from defeat. Firstly, a broad coalition is often difficult to maintain. Success often contains the seeds of failure. Now that the party has become a much more national party, there is likely to be tensions within it as individuals from different parts of the coalition struggle for dominance. These struggles are likely to intensify as we approach 2017 and the party begins the process of electing a new flag bearer. A re-fragmentation of the North into multiple parties or defection of some non-Northern parts of the coalition is a possibility. Intra-party squabbles that encourage splits and cross-overs often occur in political settings where the parties are less driven by ideology or core values and politicians are often in the game largely to enhance their self-interests. On this score, there really is no difference between the APC and the SLPP.

Second, it is true that the electoral demographics when combined with an effective implementation of the government’s Agenda for Prosperity that will be fueled by billions of dollars of new investments in the mining sector will be a nightmare for the SLPP in 2017. However, if the government fails to deliver jobs, food security and housing for the poor, a party that is anchored in popular aspirations with a non-ethnic agenda could cause an upset and exploit the divisions that are likely to emerge within the APC. The more the party’s discourse focuses on development, the more voters will be less likely to be beholden to ethnic loyalty and demand instead their own share of the development dividend. The problem with the SLPP is that it is not good at connecting with popular or subaltern groups in Freetown. Will a new leadership or party emerge with a new vision for the masses?

I will end with a note on the National Electoral Commission (NEC). There is no doubt that NEC deserves the praise it has received from all the observer groups that monitored the elections. Organizing multiple elections with a new voter registration system is not an easy task. However, it should be obvious that NEC still has some house cleaning to do. According to the NEC Chair, Christiana Thorpe, over-voting took place in only five polling stations in the Western Area. I would like to believe that there should be zero tolerance for over-voting in even one polling station.

Over-voting is not supposed to happen under the new biometric system without the complicity of NEC officials in the affected polling stations. It means that there are still bad apples in NEC who are not afraid to flout the rules and regulations. Over-voting can only occur if people who are not on the register of a polling station are allowed to vote. Other lapses, such as missing registers in some stations, use of mobile phones to provide light in some stations, and failure to post the results on the walls of some polling stations need to be fixed. These are basic flaws that should not reoccur.

By Yusuf Bangura, Switzerland

3 December 2012

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