Sierra Leone picks president in shifting political climate


Freetown - Sierra Leone holds a general election on Wednesday to pick a new president in a climate of voter frustration with the two parties that have ruled since independence.

More than 3.1 million voters are registered for the polls, which open at 07:00 and close at 18:00 across the small West African nation.

The economy is in a dire state following the 2014-16 Ebola crisis and a commodity price slump that drove away foreign investors, and living conditions are among the poorest in the world.

"We are prepared; we are committed to conduct credible elections," said Mohamed Conteh, chief commissioner of the National Election Commission (NEC), adding all electoral materials had now been distributed to polling stations.

Partial tallies are expected within 48 hours and complete results within two weeks.

President Ernest Bai Koroma cannot run again after consecutive five-year terms and has anointed a successor for the ruling All Peoples Party (APC), Samura Kamara, who has campaigned on continuity rather than change.

"I am (Koroma's) biggest legacy. I need to sustain what he has achieved... and build on it," Kamara told AFP at the final APC rally on Monday.

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The historic opposition Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) has retained the same candidate, Julius Maada Bio, who lost to Koroma in 2012.

Both parties have alternately ruled Sierra Leone since independence from Britain in 1961.

The National Grand Coalition (NGC), headed by former UN diplomat Kandeh Yumkella, is hoping to inflict damage on the two-party system by appealing to young and better educated urban voters who are less likely to vote along regional and ethnic lines.

"(Voters) are yearning for real change," said Julius Spencer, director of communications of the NGC. "We have been able to draw people from across the religious, ethnic and regional spectrum."

Regional divide

Sierra Leone is sharply divided along regional lines that overlap with ethnicity. The APC broadly relies on the Temne and Limba people in its northern strongholds and the SLPP is more popular in the south with the Mende ethnic group.

"They have huge resources compared to us but we have connected to the people better," Spencer added.

The Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), a Freetown-based think tank, released a report saying there was a "growing willingness on the part of the electorate to consider policy proposals over ethnic considerations in voter choice."

Observers from the African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), European Union (EU) and British Commonwealth will all oversee voting, which will also include the election of a new parliament and local councils.

Isolated incidents of violence have been reported between APC and SLPP supporters during the month-long campaign, with minor injuries and material damage.

Sierra Leone suffered a horrific 1991-2002 civil war, and memories of election violence from an earlier era often cause anxiety among the authorities at voting time.

Chinese controversy 

Some question whether voters will lack transport to get them to polling stations in rural areas, as Sierra Leone's high court this week upheld a ban on private vehicles circulating on election day, citing national security.

The SLPP has refused to sign a memorandum agreeing to the move, saying it could disenfranchise voters, but Bio told crowds at a final rally on Monday he was "ready for a peaceful election".

The issue of corruption has dominated the campaign, as Bio is accused of stealing $18 million while heading a junta government in 1996 and Kamara is nicknamed "Mr 10 percent" for allegedly skimming his own fee off government contracts.

Meanwhile, outgoing president Koroma's increasing reliance on China for infrastructure, including a new airport and adjoining toll road, have raised concerns Beijing is seeking to keep the APC in power.

"Chinese companies and political officials have bled into the current electoral cycle, shaping public discourse, as well as long-term economic and political decisions," noted the IGR report.

Voter freebies and funding for campaign materials could "potentially influence the voting public" in the APC's favour, it added.

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