Presidential and parliamentary candidates on the ballot
Tough competition between President Bio and top opposition rival
There is a possibility of unrest after the incidents in the election campaign.
(Updates after start of polling with quotes from voter and opposition candidate)
by Cooper Inveen and Umaru Fofana
FREETOWN, June 24 (Reuters) – Voting for national elections got underway in Sierra Leone on Saturday, with the main opposition party expected to plunge into public despair over deep economic hardship and the failure of President Julius Maada Bio’s re-election bid. Will happen
About 3.4 million people are expected to vote in the presidential and legislative vote after the campaign was hit by the cancellation of rallies in the final phase on Wednesday and tensions caused by clashes in the opposition assembly.
Bio, 59, is running for a second term against 12 opponents. The contest is expected to be close between the incumbent and Samura Kamara of the main opposition All People’s Congress (APC), who lost the last election in 2018 to Bio by a narrow margin.
Although no leader has lost the presidency in the West African nation’s recent history, the APC has relied on the ongoing cost-of-living crisis to tilt the balance in its favor. Inflation reached its highest level in more than 20 years in 2022, while the value of the national leone currency fell by 60%.
Hundreds of people waited in line at a polling station in a hilly district of the capital Freetown, including first-time voter Abu Koroma, 23, who arrived in the dark two hours before polling was due to start.
“We yearn for change,” he said, still in line until morning. “We have had different leaders since we gained independence, but we are yet to have sustainable electricity, sustainable health, all these things that a young person like me needs.”
The current recession has stunted hopes of economic progress in the wake of the devastating Ebola epidemic that peaked in 2014 and the 1991-2002 civil war. According to the World Bank, there is widespread underemployment and more than half of the population lives in poverty.
Bio’s camp blames the economic collapse on external factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. His prospects have been boosted by the support of another opposition leader, Kandeh Yumkela, who came third in 2018 and is not running this time.
Two days before the vote, Information Minister Mohammad Rahman Sware said that if Bio retained the presidency, he would focus on job creation and agricultural development to accelerate development and improve living standards.
“We will do a lot more to make people feel comfortable,” he told Reuters in an interview at a Freetown cafe.
Unusually violent protests last year over rising prices have raised fears of political unrest. Bio and Kamara reported small-scale attacks on their supporters ahead of election day, while recent questioning of the independence of election officials by the APC has raised tensions.
Both sides have called for peace. But there are concerns that the situation could worsen, especially if no candidate secures 55% of the votes cast, triggering a runoff between the top two candidates two weeks after the first round results are announced.
On Friday, Kamra told Reuters he was concerned about the possibility of vote-rigging. Asked whether he would accept the result of the vote, he said, “It is not me. Acceptance should come from the people… So we will listen to the people.” (Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Ros Russell)