Q&A: Sierra Leone votes

The West African nation's 2007 elections at a glance.

    Ernest Koroma of the opposition All People's Congress rallies the crowd [AFP]

    Sierra Leone goes to the polls this weekend, and Al Jazeera looks at why the vote is a milestone and an indictor of whether the country has truly left behind its violent past.


    What are the people of Sierra Leone voting for?


    The West African country's 2.6 million registered voters will be going to the polls to elect a new president and parliament on August 11.


    A presidential candidate needs a majority 55 per cent of the vote to be declared the winner.
    Should no one candidate attain that share, a run-off between the top two will take place within two weeks of polling day.


    The last such elections in 2002 consolidated the end of a 10-year civil war in which an estimated 50,000 people died and at least half a million were displaced. Fighting started in 1991 when the Revolutionary United Front launched a rebellion against the government of Joseph Momoh, the then president.
    Many of the problems that contributed to and fuelled the war - high youth unemployment, massive poverty and endemic corruption - are still prevalent, and the elections are seen as an indicator of whether the country has really moved on from its past.


    A UN mission withdrew in 2005 having completed a substantial development project and overseeing investment and training in the public sector provided by, among others, the UK, Sierra Leone's former colonial rulers. In light of these improvements, the vote is seen as a test of the maturity of the country's political and judicial institutions.


    Who are the main parties and politicians?


    Margai's defection could hand
    victory to the opposition [EPA]
    There are seven parties running in the polls, but the presidential race and the next parliament are expected to be dominated by three; the ruling Sierra Leone's Peoples Party (SLPP), the All People's Congress (APC) and the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), a new movement founded by a former SLPP stalwart Charles Margai.


    Whatever the result, the country will get a new leader as Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, the president, is constitutionally obliged to step down after serving two terms.
    Kabbah has an anointed successor in the shape of Solomon Berewa, the vice-president who is the SLPP candidate. Berewa narrowly won a leadership contest in 2005 that prompted the man he narrowly defeated, Charles Margai, to set up the PMDC.


    This party has rejuvenated the political scene traditionally dominated by the APC and the SLLP since independence in 1961.


    Political allegiance to the two parties has been roughly split on ethic lines. The Temne, mainly from the country's northern provinces have tended to support the APC, while the Mende in the south and east, the SLPP. Both groups represent 30 per cent each of the population.


    The PMDC is in many ways a breakaway from the SLPP and could lead to a split in the vote that may benefit the APC and Ernest Koroma, its leader. The party is already optimistic following good showings in local elections in 2004.


    Kabbah and the SLPP won a landslide victory in 2002, but that was regarded as a reward for bringing peace to the country. Berewa is closely associated with an administration that has failed to tackle social problems and this year's result is expected to be much closer.


    Will the elections be fair and violence free?


    A supporter of Ernest Koroma [AFP]
    There have been reports of rising tensions and isolated incidents of violence in the country's south and east especially near Margai's hometown, Bo. Some analysts fear that those tensions might turn violent if a run-off is required.


    Sierra Leone has conducted two successful elections since the end of the war and the country's National Election Commission has generally been praised for its performance and neutrality.


    International observers and trained election monitors have been deployed and voting registration was largely successful with about 90 per cent of the 2.83 million eligible to vote doing so.

    What challenges will the new government face?


    The atrocities of Sierra Leone's conflict are well documented and, with the country torn apart and bereft of practically any infrastructure, massive social problems remain.


    The average life expectancy is currently 38 years for a male and 43 for a female, and youth unemployment among a young population runs at 80 per cent. More than 70 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.


    All the main parties have actively courted the youth vote, but engaging and entrenching young people into society remains an important issue, with fears many could lapse into violence if their lots do not improve.


    Despite the regulation of the diamond industry and the decline of so-called blood diamonds that fuelled the war, economic growth has been disappointingly slow.


    Corruption has meant private investment has been less than expected and the World Bank ranks the country 168 out of 175 for ease of doing business in.


    The UN Human Development Index ranks Sierra Leone 176 out of 177 countries while it languishes at 142 on Transparency International's index on corruption.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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