My apologies for not keeping this site up-to-date on the election results. I suspect many of you have seen coverage in the international press. Nonetheless, I’ll offer a little summary and update now.
The election on August 11 went very smoothly, and was deemed “free and fair” by most local and international observers. Sierra Leoneans were rightly congratulated – and congratulated themselves – for holding a peaceful election with very little violence or intimidation (though there were accusations of intimidation and vote rigging by both of the leading parties).
The opposition All People’s Congress (APC) quickly claimed victory in this first poll, supported by reports from the Independent Radio Network and other local media. Official results trickled in more slowly over the following two weeks, but eventually confirmed the early claims: the APC’s Ernest Bai Koroma won 44% of the presidential vote, followed by the current vice president, Solomon Berewa of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), with 38%. The bulk of the remaining votes (14%) were captured by Charles Margai, a former SLPP member who broke away and started a new party, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), in January 2006. Parliamentary results were similar: 59 seats for the APC, including all 21 in the Western Area (the region that includes the capital, Freetown), 43 for the SLPP and 10 for the PMDC.
The story doesn’t end there, however, because none of the presidential candidates attained the 55% majority required to avert a run-off. The country will therefore go to the polls yet again, on Saturday September 8 – nearly a month after the first poll, and two weeks after the National Electoral Commission (NEC) announced the official results. This time, voters will have just two choices, the APC and the SLPP, and the party that gains a simple majority will win the presidency. (Parliamentary seats are awarded on a first-past-the-post system, independent of the presidential contest, and therefore – barring legal challenges – are already decided).
The PMDC’s voters will be crucial in the run-off. Support in the first round for the APC and the SLPP followed traditional regional divides, with APC polling strongly in the Temne-speaking (and ethnically diverse) North and West, and the SLPP in the Mende-dominated South and East. The SLPP’s poor showing in the Western Area, where the APC won all 12 parliamentary seats plus more than 60% of presidential votes, was a blow to the ruling party, but the greatest damage was the loss of votes to the PMDC in the Southern and Eastern strongholds. Margai won a majority in one southern district, Bonthe, while polling a close second – 37%, 44%, and 36%, respectively – to the SLPP in Bo, Pujehun, and Moyamba, as well as Kenema (22%) and Kailahun (15%). Almost certainly the vast majority of these votes came from former SLPP supporters.
Now, for the run-off, the PMDC’s leadership has cast their lot behind the APC, and Margai is campaigning alongside Koroma in the crucial South and East. This is a dramatic (and probably positive) change to Sierra Leone’s traditional regional- and ethnic-based politics, and it will be fascinating to see whether the PMDC’s voters in these areas follow their leadership and support the northern-based APC or revert to their support for the SLPP. Truly, Sierra Leoneans are getting a lesson – as American voters did in 2000 and 2004 – in the fact that sometimes, their votes really do count.
On a less positive note, the run-off period has already proven more volatile than the initial election period. The stakes could not be higher, with both parties realizing they could either win or lose on September 8. (Prior to the first vote, many analysts and SLPP supporters were confident in a win for the ruling party, which carried 70% of the vote in the last presidential election in 2002.)
As a result, tensions are also running high. Supporters who feel their party was hurt by intimidation or vote-rigging in the first round are now confronting their opponents, sometimes angrily and sometimes with violence. Fights have broken out in Freetown and in the volatile Eastern region, where a dusk-to-dawn curfew was temporarily imposed on Monday August 27.
Just yesterday (August 30), dozens of young people in the southeastern town of Segbwema, near the border with Liberia, stoned an APC convoy. The pro-SLPP youths and pro-APC guards and supporters then fought with sticks and stones until the police intervened. The local SLPP office was also set aflame.
President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah announced that he would impose a state of emergency if violence continued, while a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon expressed concern about the violence and called “on all parties and their leaders to do everything necessary to prevent the situation from escalating.”
The first question, therefore, is whether party leaders really do attempt to calm their supporters. (Thus far, both have proven relatively willing to do so). The second is how much control leaders actually exert over rank and file members, and whether a call for peace from the top will translate into restraint on the ground.
A week of campaigning remains before the next vote, which will be followed again by a long and careful counting period, and then the crucial test of whether parties accept the results.
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