Shifting fortunes for main parties as S. Leone votes


Freetown (AFP)

Sierra Leone holds a general election on Wednesday with uncertainty over the impact of new movements vying to break the stranglehold of two parties which have ruled since independence from Britain in 1961.

President Ernest Bai Koroma is stepping down after a decade and many feel his anointed successor cannot kickstart the diamond-rich West African nation's economy, devastated after a brutal 1991-2002 civil war fuelled by the so-called "blood diamonds."

Former foreign minister Samura Kamara is campaigning as a stability candidate but will not simply follow "his master's voice", the outgoing president told AFP on Saturday.

The historic opponent of the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) is the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), whose candidate Julius Maada Bio has made clear it is their "turn" to hold power.

The APC will hold a final rally in Koroma's northern hometown, Makeni, on Monday as campaigning wraps up, while the SLPP will issue its last call for voter support from their southern stronghold of Bo.

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.

"The APC and SLPP draw immensely from ethnic and regional sentiments," said Lansana Gberie, political analyst and author.

Corruption has dominated the campaign, with Bio accused of stealing $18 million while heading a junta government in 1996, while Kamara was nicknamed "Mr 10 percent" by critics for his alleged cut of contracts signed while in government.

The APC's reliance on Chinese investment for a string of infrastructure projects has also brought barbs that the party is Beijing's puppet.

- New parties -

There are roughly 3.1 million registered voters. Sixteen candidates are running for president while hundreds are vying for the 132 seats in parliament as well as positions in local councils.

Partial results are expected within a few days of voting.

Whichever party wins will need to deal with the aftermath of the 2014-16 Ebola crisis, brought into sharp relief by the deaths of hundreds in a mudslide in August, and vanishing foreign investment due to slumped commodity prices.

A new party, the National Grand Coalition (NGC), was formed by its presidential candidate Kandeh Yumkella when he broke away from the SLPP, and his message of reform is resonating with youths.

"That appeals to many Sierra Leoneans who have concluded that the old politics of the APC and SLPP have been a shackle on progress, that ethnic or regional politics undermine democratic accountability which alone would create the conditions for a meaningful transformation of the country," noted Gberie.

Another party, the Coalition for Change (C4C), is also eating into the duopoly's support, but the NGC "represents the far bigger threat," analyst Cberie added.

A diplomatic source in Freetown told AFP that Yumkella was recognised as a force for change in the country and could act as a kingmaker between the APC and SLPP in an eventual runoff.

However, the true contest remains between the two main parties, the source added.

- Vehicle ban -

Civil society groups have meanwhile complained that a police ban on vehicles circulating on election day could hit turnout, saying buses the state has promised to lay on may not be able to cope with demand.

President Koroma defended the move to AFP and said it had worked "very well" in the 2012 election when he won his second and final term.

"All of it is intelligence driven. The police who are in charge of the security of people during elections have already been informed that people have intentions of moving in with machetes and others to disrupt the process," he said.

The SLPP said it considered "any restriction of the movement of Sierra Leoneans as a fundamental breach of the right to and freedom of movement" and had "not agreed" to sign an inter-party agreement on it.