On April 23, President Julius Maada Bio and Kandeh Yumkella danced together at a public function in Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, effectively signaling the start of the 2023 election season in the West African state.
The occasion was the signing of a strategic alliance between the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and Yumkella’s National Grand Coalition (NGC), one of the country’s opposition parties, ahead of the June 24 presidential election
Ahead of the vote, political allegiances are in flux, with prominent politicians aligning themselves with former foes to enhance their election chances.
Five years ago, both men were on opposite sides, seeking the same position.
SLPP’s Bio won that presidential election, edging ahead with 43.3 percent to 42.7 percent by Samura Kamara of the then-ruling All People’s Congress (APC) in the first round of voting. NGC leader Yumkella placed third.
Bio won narrowly in the second round against Kamara, then backed by outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma, who was ineligible to run after two terms in office.
A rematch with a difference
Officially, the election campaign began on May 23, but the outcome of the June 24 poll will be shaped by a lot of potential drama in the month before the vote.
Approximately 3.3 million people – around half of the entire population – are registered to vote in what is on course to be a keenly contested election.
Bio will again face off against the APC’s Kamara, hoping to win the 55 percent required in the first round for a second and final term in office.
Four years ago, the NGC and fellow opposition party Coalition for Change (C4C) won a combined 10.4 percent of the vote in the first round. Neither party will field candidates this year.
While the NGC has agreed to an alliance with the SLPP to present Bio as the single candidate, C4C leader Sam Sumana, who was the country’s vice president between 2007 and 2015, also left to rejoin the APC, fracturing the smaller party.
There have also been changes to the electoral system.
Electoral reform, proposed by Bio and carried out by the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL) in the second half of 2022, was politically controversial but ruled as legal by the Supreme Court in January 2023 after the APC challenged the decision.
A district block proportional representation system, last used in 2002, will replace the first-past-the-post system for parliamentary and local council elections.
Under the new system, political parties produce district-level lists of candidates, with seats awarded based on the percentage of the vote the party receives in a district.
Initially, the opposition feared that the seats would be allocated using figures from the contested 2021 census in which there were significant increases in SLPP strongholds and corresponding decreases in areas of APC support.
However, the ECSL agreed to use an average of the last two census figures – both politically disputed – to apportion seats.
The opposition has also voiced concerns about the voter registration process, the subsequent clean-up of the register and the independence of key electoral institutions.
In December 2022, APC Interim Secretary Abdul Kargbo raised concerns that both the voter registration and verification “were deliberately designed and employed to create an unlevel playing field to disenfranchise a certain section of the electorate at the expense of our party”.
Identity trumps issues
In Sierra Leonean politics, ethnicity and region have historically been more appealing to the electorate than political ideologies; the southern and eastern regions are strongholds of the SLPP, while the northern and western regions are more inclined to support the APC.
Bio won an average of 87 percent of the vote in the seven southern and eastern districts in the 2018 presidential run-off vote while Kamara won 78 percent in the north and west, excluding Freetown.
Success for Bio then was partly due to tripling his vote share in the north – from 6 percent during his unsuccessful 2012 run to 18 percent in 2018.
Given that voting patterns seem likely to remain the same in 2023, eking out marginal gains in opponents’ strongholds has become even more critical for both candidates this time.
In recognition of these ethno-regional dynamics and the need to reinforce voter support bases as well as expand into new areas, Bio has undertaken “nationwide tours” since the start of the year, visiting almost every chiefdom in the country.
These visits, often strategically aligned to coincide with the launch of new projects or the disbursement of funds, such as community shares of mining revenues, offer a reminder of what the president can deliver, analysts say.
“Bio has a big head start and the opposition is going to struggle to catch up,” Keili told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, a court case against its flagbearer has left the APC lagging behind the ruling party’s preparations. Kamara, accused of misallocating public funds allocated to a consulate renovation project in New York when he was foreign minister (2012-2017), was first charged to court in December 2021.
The case will next be heard on July 14.
The opposition figure is keen to move the spotlight away from him and onto issues such as the economy.
In 2018, the SLPP rode to power, promising, among other things, to fix “excruciating poverty and … a youthquake of unskilled, underemployed and unemployed youth roaming the streets”.
But massive unemployment, high levels of inflation and a depreciating currency continue to inflict pronounced economic hardships on many Sierra Leoneans. In August 2022, there were protests in Freetown and several northern towns about soaring costs of living, resulting in more than 20 deaths as security agents fired at protesters.
This time, President Bio has promised a youth employment scheme with the aim of creating 500,000 jobs in five years.
For his part, Kamara – who has also promised to “intensify efforts in job creation” – has pledged to “work towards transforming Sierra Leone from a consumption to a competitive production economy”.
But according to Keili, talk of the economy “can help the APC in urban areas [but] in rural areas, ethnic identity will be the deciding factor”.
“The economy might be bad, but people may think that without their ethnic group at the top, it will be worse,” he told Al Jazeera.
Indeed, such sentiments were echoed by 55 percent of respondents to a 2020 Afrobarometer survey (PDF) from Sierra Leone’s eastern and southern regions – where Bio hails from. Most respondents there felt the country was moving in the right direction. But only 15 percent in the opposition-dominated northern and western regions agreed.
Analysts say a repeat of the scale of protests seen last August is unlikely during the elections.
Hotly contested elections risk further entrenching and hardening such divisions and have implications for democratic development in the country.
“Sierra Leone has made commendable strides in building democratic institutions and maintaining stability since 2002,” Isata Mahoi, national network coordinator at the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, told Al Jazeera. “But recent political tensions, economic challenges, and concerns about the independence of democratic institutions raise questions about its democratic trajectory”.