Sierra Leone stands at a cross roads. On the one hand, it experienced a peaceful transfer of power in 2007. A peaceful election could be another important step towards the consolidation of what would be the most remarkable African democracy. But if the results (which were being processed at the time of writing) are rejected by opposition groups there is a real danger of a return to conflict. There have already been reports of skirmishes in the eastern town of Kailahan.
Political parties in Sierra Leone have already begun spinning the election result even though the results have yet to be result. The Sierra Leone People’s Party, the main opposition party in the country, has accused the Electoral Commission of showing bias to the ruling All People’s Congress. We should not be surprised by this – alleging rigging early gives parties a ready made excuse if they perform poorly at the polls, and a number of opposition parties in Africa have rejected election results that were fairly accurate.
But the SLPP has good reasond to complain. Although the European Union Observers concluded that the election was ‘well conducted’, they also noted a number of serious concerns:
* There was insufficient secrecy of the vote in 29% of polling stations visited.
* Conduct of voting operations was not assessed positively in 5% of the 404 polling stations visited.
* Agents from both political parties were not present in 10% of polling stations, and 15% of polling stations visited had no domestic observers.
* The ruling APC ‘clearly benefitted from the advantages of incumbency by making use of state resources’ and ‘also enjoyed more media coverage’.
* The Electoral Commission failed to provide adequate voter education.
These failings may be relatively minimal compared to some of the flawed elections that the continent has seen, but they do raise the question of why such an election has received widespread international acclaim. One reason is that European observers know that things are more likely to proceed smoothly the less questions are raised about the conduct of the polls. So far, the process has been largely peaceful and international endorsement of the results may help to dampen inter-party tensions.
But if the APC do win another term in office, donors need to increase the pressure on the government to strengthen the electoral process. Otherwise, opposition parties may start to believe that their only chance of winning power is to abandon the ballot box and take up arms against the government – and that would most likely mean the end of Sierra Leone’s brave democratic experiment.
Click here to download the preliminary European Union Observer’s Report.