Music has turned rallies into parties for voters in Sierra Leone.
|Colourful campaigns have ended as people brace
for the day of the elections
Campaigning has ended in Sierra Leone ahead of landmark presidential and parliamentary elections.
There had been fears that divisions between supporters of the different parties could lead to violence but the main threat to the vote now appears to be the weather.
It is the high monsoon season in western Africa and on Friday torrential rains hit the country causing treacherous conditions on many roads in the capital Freetown.
The vote is seen as key test of whether the west African nation’s institutions are now mature enough to transfer power peacefully five years after end of a brutal decade-long conflict that left 50,000 people dead.
The country’s two million registered voters will elect a new leader from seven presidential candidates.
Solomon Berewa, the 69-year-old current vice president standing for the ruling Sierra Leone’s People’s Party (SLPP) is still considered the favourite but is facing a strong challenge from Ernest Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC).
The political scene has also been shaken up by the emergence of a third force, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), effectively a splinter group formed by Charles Margai in 2005 when he lost the election for the SLPP leadership to Berewa.
The party commands strong support, especially among Sierra’s many young voters in the southern and eastern provinces around the towns of Bo and Kenema.
Youth unemployment is a staggering 80 per cent in Sierra Leone and 70 per cent of the population live on less than one dollar a day.
As a result many voters say they have been let down by the SLPP government and if there is the perception that there has been an attempt to fix the vote clashes could erupt, especially if a run-off is required.
Analysts have predicted that scenario is highly likely, with Koroma and Berewa likely to face-off if neither of them can acquire 55 per cent of the vote required for outright victory. In such an outcome the votes of Margai’s PMDC will be crucial.
John Caulker of the rights group Forum for Conscience told Al Jazeera that he thinks there is a 10-in-one chance of violence if a run-off is needed.
“With youth unemployment currently at 80 per cent, creating jobs is a high priority”Send us your views
No major incidents of violence were reported during the party’s final raucous rallies this week which ended with the SLPP’s on Thursday. However the election will be a test of the neutrality of the country’s UN and British-trained police force and military.
Christiana Thorpe, the head of the national electoral commission has said the poll will “make or break this country.”
The electoral registration process earlier in the year was highly successful with over 90 per cent of those eligible to vote registering to do so.
But the weather could now be the biggest threat.
With no let-up of the rain in sight the turnout could be affected, it will also create problems for the collection and transportation of ballot boxes once the polls close.
Results were to be released progressively with final tallies within 12 days of voting.
Concurrent parliamentary elections see 572 candidates vying for 112 parliamentary seats.
Despite the spectre of problems, most Sierra Leoneans are optimistic ahead of the vote and believe it will give them an opportunity to consolidate peace and consign their violent past to the history books.
Abu Kamara, a former member of the notorious West Side Boys, a splinter faction of the Armed Revolutionary Council, known for their use of child soldiers in the country’s ten-year conflict, said: “Election is democracy. Let the people decide.”
|The PMDC commands strong support especially
among Sierra’s many young voters
DJ Base, the host of one of the country’s most popular radio shows, told Al Jazeera that the most important aspect of Saturday’s vote is that it is peaceful.
“We’ve been through a lot,” he says. “The key will be that the elections need to be free and fair.”
Whatever the result the country will get a new leader as 75-year-old Ahmed Tejan Kabbah is prevented from running again by constitutional term limits.
Kabbah won a landslide victory in the last presidential poll in 2002, seen largely as a reward for bringing peace.
However, he has faced criticism for his administration’s failure to alleviate the abject poverty of many of his citizens and the endemic corruption that continues to hamper economic development.
But in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, Kabbah said said he was proud of his tenure.
“I am very happy that I played a pivotal role in bringing peace to my country. It was a very difficult situation,” he said.
“I regret that people died, of course. I regret that so many of my people suffered. I regret that so many children that should have gone to school, trained in certain things, were not able to do this.”
“But we have taken measure to address all those and for that reason I feel very good that my contribution has been useful.”