A resilient duopoly? Understanding Sierra Leone’s March 7, 2018 elections

Yusuf Bangura: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 17 March, 2018:

If the results released by the National Electoral Commission are credible, 57.3% of Sierra Leoneans rejected the All People’s Congress (APC) in the March 7 presidential election, despite its advantage of incumbency, super rallies and use of extraordinarily huge resources in the campaign.

Most voters seemed unimpressed by the APC’s rhetoric of development and wanted them out of State House. It is an indictment on President Ernest Koroma’s record and choice of the party’s standard bearer, Samura Kamara.

The results confirm the grip of the two oldest parties, the APC and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), on our politics.

The National Grand Coalition’s (NGC) message of change, anti-corruption and non-ethnic politics was not embraced by the electorate, as it secured only 6.9% of the votes.

Four months, it seems, is too short to change entrenched voter attitudes.

The voting pattern indicates that the two traditional parties still draw the bulk of their support from their putative ethno-regional strongholds, even though the SLPP made gains in the Western Area and the North, compared to 2012. 88.6% of the APC’s votes are from the North and Western Area, and 69.7% of the SLPP’s are from the South-East.

The results suggest that the APC has become more regional than the SLPP, but Sierra Leone’s party system is still a duopoly that is built on ethno-regional divisions.

The two traditional parties account for 86% of the total votes, with Julius Maada Bio’s SLPP getting 43.3% and Samura Kamara’s APC 42.7%. The expectation by the APC that there would be no run-off was clearly wishful thinking.

As I pointed out in a previous article, three reasons are responsible for the APC’s poor performance: the illegal sacking of Sam Sumana as vice president–and, if I may add, the elected and popular Mayor of Kono, Saa Emmerson Lamina–leading to the loss of a large number of Kono votes; the alienation of the South-East; and the emergence of the NGC and other parties, which challenged the APC’s hold on the North.

The APC lost ground in every region and most districts. The collapse of the APC’s votes from Koroma’s 58.7% vote share in 2012 to only 42.7% is astonishing. It currently enjoys 69% of the votes in the North, compared to about 88% in 2012; 20% of the votes in Kono, as opposed to 58% in 2012;  11% of the votes in the South-East, compared to about 20% in 2012;  and 57% of the votes in the Western Area, as opposed to 72% in 2012.

The only districts that gave the APC vote shares approaching their 2012 performance are Bombali and Karene where they polled 86% and 81% of the votes respectively. They lost ground in every other district.

The SLPP recovered lost ground in the Mende-speaking districts of Kailahun, Kenema, Bo, Pujehun, Bonthe and Moyamba, polling 83% of the total votes.

However, it scored only 74.5% of the votes in the entire South-East, which includes Kono—this is slightly less than the 76% of votes it received in 2012.

This means that the SLPP underperformed in Kono, where it only managed 21.5% of the votes as opposed to about 40% in 2012. The SLPP received 90% of the votes in Bonthe and 86% of the votes in Pujehun.

No party polled this kind of numbers anywhere else in the country except the APC in Bombali, which gave 86% of its votes to that party. Bio’s SLPP made important advances in the Western Area, improving its score from 26% in 2012 to 33.5% in 2018.

This may look like a big improvement, but it is only a percentage point higher than Solomon Berewa’s SLPP performance in 2007 (32%). The SLPP almost doubled its votes in the North (11%) albeit from a small base of 6% in 2012, but it is still lower than Berewa’s performance of 15% in 2007.

Sam Sumana’s Coalition for Change (C4C) wiped the floor with the two big parties in the district. It achieved a poll margin of 29 points, but took only 50.5% of the votes.

A very open run-off

The pattern of voting suggests that the run-off will be too close to call. The very small margin between the two run-off parties (less than 15,000 votes) indicates that no party has a momentum, although the SLPP may rightly claim that the decline in APC’s vote share from 58.7% to only 42.7% puts the APC on the back foot.

This is a drop of 16 percentage points, suggesting that the party is facing a serious headwind and may well lose in the run-off.

The smaller parties, whose vote share is 14%, have become kingmakers. The electoral geography of these votes throws up interesting surprises. Public discussion on the run-off has focused on the likely support by the 14 smaller parties for either of the two run-off parties.

I want to suggest that this may not be a good way of looking at the issue. Our party system is not policy-based or ideological. Parties may find it difficult, therefore, to order most of their voters to follow their lead in a run-off.

A more useful approach is to examine where these 14% votes are located in our ethno-regional electoral map. 42.5% of these voters are in the North, 38.5% are in the South-East, and 19% are in the Western Area.

If we use the old North-Western Area and South-East ethno-regional categories, it means 61.5% of the voters of these smaller parties are in the North-West and 38.5% are in the South-East. This reflects the overall electoral demographic ratio or distribution of registered voters of 60:40 for the two regions respectively.

One of the surprises in this election is the ability of some of the very small parties to attract support outside of the standard bearer’s assumed region or homeland.

The National Unity and Reconciliation Party, for instance, has more voters in the North (49%) than in the South-East (43%), even though the standard bearer is of South-Eastern origin. Similarly, the Unity Party, which has a Western Area standard bearer, draws only 12% of its votes from that region; most of the UP’s votes are from the South-East (47%) and the North (41%).

The Citizens Democratic Party is led by a Southerner but attracts 55% of its votes from the North. The United Democratic Movement, which was formed by a Northerner, who is now an adviser at State House, attracts 69% of its votes from the South-East.

And the United National People’s Party, a party with deep Northern roots, which, in 1996, was the second largest party in the country, now gets almost the same share of its votes from the North (48%) and the South-East (45%).

The Revolutionary United Front Party and the People’s Movement for Democratic Change are still heavily South-East parties, attracting 68.5% and 81% respectively of their votes from the South-East. And the Alliance Democratic Party’s voters are predominantly Northern (63%).

60% of the NGC’s voters are from the North, 28% are from the Western Area, and 12% are from the South-East. The NGC is the largest party in Kambia (43%) and has performed reasonably well in Falaba (16.15%), Koinadugu (14.75%) and Port Loko (11.75%). It also has some presence in Tonkolili ((8%) and Karene (6.6%).

However, its performance in the South-East and Bombali is abysmal, scoring only 2% and 2.3% of the votes respectively in those areas.

If the NGC’s voters, who are almost half of the voters of the smaller parties (6.9%), support the SLPP, the latter will score 50.2% and cross the victory line.

If they support the APC, the latter will poll 49.6% of the votes, needing 0.4% votes from another small party to reach the magic number.

The C4C’s voters are heavily concentrated in Kono (84.6%), accounting for 3.5% of the national votes, and do not carry the same weight as those of the NGC.

However, a combination of the C4C’s votes and those of 6-10 other very tiny parties may help either of the two run-off parties to win.

The voters of the 12 tiny parties (i.e. minus the NGC and C4C) cannot collectively decide the run-off by siding with either of the run-off parties.

Such a configuration will still need the backing of C4C voters to be successful.

And only the NGC’s voters can single-handedly decide the winner if they throw their weight behind the SLPP.

Conflicting narratives for the run-off

There are two conflicting narratives that are likely to determine how the 14% voters will vote in the run-off. The first is the ethnic narrative. As we have seen from my analysis of the electoral geography of the 14% voters of small parties, 61.5% of them are located in the North-Western Area and 38.5% in the South-East. The APC accounts for 63% of the total votes of these two regions, and the SLPP 22%.

If the run-off becomes an ethno-regional contest, the APC is likely to win. 5.2% of the votes (139,000) were invalidated by NEC. 43% of these invalid votes were in the North, 34% were in the South-East and 23% were in the Western Area.

If these voters vote correctly in the run-off, and voting assumes ethno-regional dimensions, the North-West and South-East distribution will be 66:34 respectively. This explains why the APC has been aggressively pushing the ethno-regional card, almost to the point of ethnic scaremongering.

Interestingly, the SLPP wants its South-East region, especially the six Mende-speaking districts, to vote solidly ethnic, but hopes that voters in the North and Western Area will be non-ethnic in their choice. It’s huge success in securing 83% of the votes in the six Mende-speaking districts may provoke a backlash in the North.

The SLPP may have improved on its 2012 performance in the North, but the role of its candidate, Bio, in the National Provisional Ruling Council’s rule in the 1990s, when 27 citizens (mostly Northerners) were tortured and killed without trial, makes him unpopular in that region.

Bio’s change message might also be a hard sell because of serious allegations of corruption against him, during the three months he served as Head of State in 1996.

The second narrative is the change message—the idea that voters are fed up with the APC and will accept any party other than the APC. This is underscored by the fact that 57.3% of voters rejected the APC in the first round of elections.

Indeed, Bio’s satisfactory performance in the Western Area and small inroads in the North is part of a protest wave against the misdeeds of the APC in  the last 10 years. Popular grievances include the rising cost of living, especially for basic commodities; poor provision of basic services; high levels of poverty and under/unemployment; mass-scale corruption, with missing Ebola funds and hajjgate as the most scandalous; the witch-hunting of Yumkella over his citizenship; intimidation of supporters of small parties in the North during the campaign; denial of diaspora members of the APC, including those who have already served as MPs, the APC ticket to contest parliamentary elections; selection of an unpopular standard bearer; and Koroma’s larger than life posture in the party where he reins supreme–making Kamara, the stand bearer, looking like a puppet.

Any combination of these grievances in the minds of voters may trump the ethnic card and send the SLPP to State House.

Dangers of a questionable mandate

These elections have been marred by high levels of irregularities, as can be seen in NEC’s cancellation of 221 polling station ballots because of over-voting.

There have also been allegations of irregularities relating to result data entry, administration of reconciliation result forms, mixing of ballot boxes in polling districts, and intimidation of party polling agents.

In addition, the high number of invalid votes could be because of voter error or vote suppression by rogue NEC field officials.

Even though the cancelled 221 polling stations account for 1.9% of the polling stations, the voters affected could be more than 50,000, depending on the size of the polling stations.

In a tight race, they could be decisive in determining the winner.

NEC has not provided a list of the affected polling stations, so it is impossible to analyse their likely effects in the run-off.

Over-voting cannot occur without the complicity of NEC officials, which is a real tragedy for Sierra Leone’s democracy.

It seems that the top management of NEC is highly professional but some officials at the field level are rotten to the core.

Problems of over-voting and other irregularities will persist if rogue elements are not fished out and heavily punished.

These are the first elections Sierra Leone has organised without external support, and we seem to be repeating the old script of being incapable of organising free and fair elections.

With the high stakes in the run-off and the brinkmanship of the two parties, which are determined to win by any means, will the NEC be able to give Sierra Leoneans a result that will be seen as fair and credible? The run-off elections will be held on Tuesday 27 March 2018.

1 Comment

  1. This is a very good assessment of the political results and projections for the runoff.
    But speaking as a political novice, I do believe the major factor that determined the results of the first round was the political debate that the AYV television, together with other stakeholders organized and that gave most of the voters that reside within the main cities of Sierra Leone, the opportunity of inviting all presidential candidates to their homes, cinema halls and public squares, to discuss their aims and plans to move the country forward. The main factor was the body language and the eye contact.

    I am personally appealing to those same media organizations to organize a final debate between these two political parties and I personally believe one of them will reject the invitation which will definitely prove my point.
    My advice to the two political parties is that the AYVTV has changed the political atmosphere in the country and the voters now have access to factual information and they’re going to base their decision on issues rather than tribalism.

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