Sierra Leone: ready to vote for some uninspiring choices

The stakes for Sierra Leone are high in its forthcoming elections but the choice facing the electorate is remarkably uninspiring. Rumour has it if things go smoothly some donors will shift their classification of the country from ‘post-conflict’ to ‘low-income less-developed country’ – a big deal for peace and future prosperity.

Worries over possible violence and a focus on a free and fair election are understandable given historical conflict and the prevalence of violence at political rallies and by-elections over the last four years. Financial and alcoholic inducements are offered by political parties encouraging people to don party colours and participate in rallies to swell the boisterous ranks of the faithful. In the lead-up to this election, political-party security has also become worryingly militarised, with young men (many former combatants) dressed in dark uniforms wearing flak jackets and SWAT caps. There is a concern that the costs of winning and losing power in Sierra Leone are now higher, with increasing government revenues from mining royalties filling the coffers and a zero-sum attitude prevailing as a result, which might increase the possibility of violence. Yet, despite these shows of bravado, the overriding atmosphere in Sierra Leone is not one of potential violence so much as of disillusionment with the political process.

In 2007, citizens’ political-party preferences were clear – people believed fervently in one party or the other and would tell you without hesitation who they were voting for. The parties may have lacked clear policies, but people seemed willing to give them a chance to deliver on their broad promises of peace and development. Many still vaunt the virtues of either the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) or the primary opposition party (and previous government), the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). Those siding with the APC point to the government’s investment in the ‘hardware’ of development: roads, schools, electricity and water. In contrast, SLPP supporters appeal to the democratic process, believing that a SLPP government will ensure the people’s participation in government (though they may not be encouraged to get quite as involved as SLPP leader, Julius Maada Bio, who has been involved in two coups). While having a two-time coup leader as the SLPP presidential candidate might not have been the most savvy political move in a burgeoning democracy (the decision appears to have its roots in ethnic considerations, ensuring that the leader is from the party’s dominant ethnic support base), people also express concerns about the APC becoming too comfortable in office (they were the party who, prior to the civil war, instituted one-party rule and dissolved local government, laying the foundations for conflict). Despite the differences in how supporters view their parties’ respective strengths, neither party has voiced a clear agenda – making it difficult to vote on the basis of policies.

Sierra Leoneans in 2012 seem fed up with the calibre of political behaviour in the country. This was recently demonstrated when the two presidential candidates came face-to-face when the SLPP leader’s motorcade refused to give way to the President’s convoy driving in the opposite direction, despite police attempts to stop them. The country’s weariness of this kind of political sparring and empty political rhetoric may have at least two interesting impacts on the upcoming election.

First, it is likely to lead to fewer people voting in the 2012 election than in the past. In 2007, about 90% of eligible voters registered and 76% of those registered subsequently voted; this was not a country where political apathy was a problem. Yet, as tit-for-tat politics becomes old news, people may see less point in engaging. It would be disappointing if this anticipated slump plays out – a reminder perhaps that while democracy is initially greeted as the answer to all ills, it turns out to be more challenging in practice.

Secondly, apathy may create an opportunity for smaller parties to gain more seats in Parliament. The third-biggest party in Sierra Leone, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), split off from the SLPP in the lead-up to the 2007 elections, and is led by Charles Margai, the nephew of Sierra Leone’s first President, and the son of its second. While the PMDC will not be in a position to form government, it may be able to turn peoples’ frustrations with the two major parties into votes for an alternative, especially if it can articulate policies rather than rhetoric.

For an important election, in a country which could shed its post-conflict classification, where national institutions are running the show independently, utilising impressive biometric technology to prevent voter fraud, as well as increasing the number of polling stations to ensure improved access for voters, it is a shame that the political landscape is so uninspiring. Sierra Leoneans deserve better – and they increasingly know it.

15 November 2012
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