Hits and misses in Sierra Leone’s new electoral reforms ahead of June polls.

In two weeks, Sierra Leone heads to the polls in an election organised under the new electoral reforms that were presented by the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone. The reforms were proposed by the incumbent president and candidate President Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).

Secrets Known examines the provisions in the reforms and their impact on the forthcoming polls. Significantly, the electoral reforms score big on replacing the constituency-based – first past the post system with Proportional Representation (PR). The District Block Representation System was last used in 2002 and has now been adopted as the electoral system for the upcoming general elections scheduled for June 24th,2023.

The District Block Representation System will see each district assigned a number of seats based on the population data (2021 census results), and political parties produce district-level lists of candidates, with seats awarded based on the percentage of the vote the party receives in a district. The new threshold required to win a seat in a district is set at 11.9 percent of the vote. The secret known is that the District Block Representation System will favour the two dominant parties that will raise the threshold percentage and these are the ruling party SLPP and the opposition party All Peoples Congress (APC).

Another score in the amendments is the registration and voting outside of Sierra Leone. Initially, the Public Elections Act 2012, only provided for registration of voters outside Sierra Leone, the amendment now provides for voting though at the discretion of the commission. The downside of this provision is that it is not mandatory but at least provides an opportunity for the nationals in diaspora to participate in the elections.

Again, another progressive provision worth mentioning is the requirement for all nominations of candidates by political parties to include a female. This affirmative requirement compels a political party for every three candidates, one to be female. Secrets Known welcomes this as a step in the right direction in empowering women and increasing their participation as political candidates though this provision only guarantees nomination but not an election. To date, there is no provision for reserved seats in parliament for women and the absence of this affirmative requirement continues to exclude women from participation in elective politics as candidates.

Other progressive amendments include provision for cancelling results at a polling station where over-voting has taken place and fresh elections conducted only in circumstances where the overall result is affected. This will help to cure ballot stuffing. Additionally, the amendment provides for the cancellation of results due to violence during the counting process as an anti-dote to electoral violence. In relation, the period for hearing of election petition cases has been revised from 6 months to four months.

Another progressive amendment worth recognising is the establishment of the National Elections Trust Fund which will be used in financing elections and referenda. The secret known behind the spirit of this fund is to ensure that the commission is financed and sustainable. The downside of this provision is that the fund is to be managed by the Electoral Sustainability Commission whose composition is not provided for in the law including means through which the commission will generate the funds.

On the other hand, the electoral amendments missed the opportunity to address political party financing by failing to provide public funds to political parties and explicitly stating that political parties shall not use state resources to fund campaign or electioneering activities. In doing this, political parties are expected to fundraise resources from private sources exposing them to illicit financing from ‘dirty’ sources, that can risk the country’s sovereignty. The amendments also never considered regulating campaign financing to curb commercialised and monetised electoral politics. Secrets Known considers these as a ‘big’ miss in the electoral amendments that would have improved the integrity of the election process and its outcome.

As the world sets all its eyes on the June 24th polls in Sierra Leone, it remains to be seen if the elections will benefit from the raft of electoral amendments made in the second half of 2022, and upheld by the Supreme Court in January 2023.

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