crunch time

Sierra Leone election: How to tell if the polls will be rigged

By Nic Cheeseman

Premium badge Reserved for subscribers

Posted on June 23, 2023 06:35

 © File photo of Sierra Leoneans lining up to cast their vote at a polling station 2018. R(EUTERS/Olivia Acland)
File photo of Sierra Leoneans lining up to cast their vote at a polling station 2018. R(EUTERS/Olivia Acland)

The temperature is rising in Sierra Leone ahead of general elections on 24 June, and it is not because of climate change.

As election day draws near, the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) is stepping up its campaign to put pressure on the electoral commission to hold a credible poll and on the ruling party to respect the will of the people. Having initially complained about the state of the electoral roll and a last-minute change to the electoral system, opposition leaders have gone through the gears.

In their latest salvo, they called for the electoral commission to be disbanded and replaced with an “international accredited electoral body”. The opposition then organised a protest that led to clashes with the police. So what are the APC so worried about, and how well founded are their fears?

Over the last few months I have received a number of messages warning that the elections will be manipulated in various ways – through repression, censorship of critical voices, and the last minute change to the electoral system. This often happens just before an election. Having written a book titled How to rig an election, my inbox is often full of messages about new ways that people have seen elections being manipulated, and requests to expose them.

One hand behind their back

My natural instinct is to believe such claims. After all, electoral manipulation is a global phenomenon and ruling parties have an in-built incentive to bend the rules to their own advantage if they can get away with it. A lot of my research has been devoted to showing the extent to which opposition parties operating in counterfeit democracies are forced to compete with one hand behind their back.

In the era of online misinformation, however, it is more obvious than ever that some claims of rigging are themselves fraudulent. Opposition leaders have some good reasons to exaggerate manipulation.

At a time of increasing authoritarianism and declining donor intervention to defend democracy, anything other than a big claim is unlikely to get traction – especially for a smaller country, such as Sierra Leone, that tends to be overlooked by the global media. Overstating how bad elections are also helps to insulate leaders from criticism if they lose, and so keep control of their own parties.

It is therefore important to closely scrutinise claims of electoral manipulation, and to push back against false misinformation. After all, such claims can play an important role in delegitimising political processes and undermining voter confidence in the democratic system.

In Kenya, for example, many Raila Odinga supporters still believe he was the true winner of the 2022 presidential polls, even though he has yet to provide any credible evidence to back up his argument that he won more votes than President William Ruto. So how can we work out if the APC’s concerns are legitimate?

Opinion polls vs official results

Assessing how vulnerable an election is to rigging before voting has happened is challenging. Most analysis of elections starts once the results have been announced and assess the quality of the process by looking backwards.

Election experts ask, for example, whether the results tally with pre-election opinion polls, whether results released at the national level are consistent with the numbers released by polling stations, and whether the outcome falls within the range of results projected by parallel vote tabulations conducted by domestic observers.

None of this kind of analysis is possible before voters have gone to the polls, and so, instead, we need to look for clues based on the kinds of developments that took place before other elections that were subsequently shown not to be credible. In doing so, it is important to keep in mind that we cannot know anything for sure until after the official results have been released.

When we conducted the research for the book How to rig an election, three key developments emerged as indicators that the the credibility of elections is under threat:

  • evidence that the ruling party is responding to possible electoral defeat with repression rather than finding new ways to appeal to voters,
  • unexpected changes to key parts of the political system that are made without consultation, and
  • a decline in transparency and electoral commission neutrality compared to previous polls.

Strong case

How does Sierra Leone fare on this mini checklist?

On the first point, APC leaders have a strong case. In a highly controversial last-minute move, the electoral system for the legislature was changed from the first-past-the-post model used in the last election in 2018 to one of proportional representation. The change occurred without widespread consultation, and although it was subsequently approved by the Supreme Court some still see it as illegitimate.

There is evidence that violence is being used to shut the opposition out of ruling party strongholds

It certainly seems to have been self-serving. Election experts estimate that if this system had been in place in 2018, the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party would have secured at least 10 more seats, while the APC would have won less. There are also concerns that by removing consistency based elections, in which voters have more of a sense of how the community votes, the changes will also make it harder to expose election rigging.

On the second point, the government certainly has good reasons to be worried about how free and fair vote might go given that the economic difficulties that undermined support for the president in Kenya and Zambia are being felt just as strongly in Sierra Leone.

The APC claims that it has responded by encouraging the “intimidation and suppression of our party members in the South”. This is harder to verify, but there is evidence that violence is being used to shut the opposition out of ruling party strongholds, including the recent burning down of the APC office in Bo, the largest city in the Southern Province.

What about transparency and the role of the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone itself? On this point the evidence is less straightforward. On the one hand, there are legitimate concerns about late notice of key processes such as early voting, and a lack of transparency on issues such as ballot paper procurement and printing.

On the other hand, the Electoral Commission has yet to display explicit partisan bias, and is a body that has presided over transfers of power – including to the APC – in the past.

Next steps

So where does that leave us? The ruling party has embarked on a dangerous path by undermining its own democratic credentials, but there is still hope that the electoral commission will deliver a process that is credible enough to avoid the kind of “explosion of violence” the country suffered in 2022.

This means that domestic and international observers should be on full alert for evidence of both repression and electoral fraud. It also means that it is reasonable for the opposition to alert the world that one of the continent’s electoral success stories is under threat, even if it has not yet completely veered off the democratic road. Yet although many of their concerns are legitimate, APC leaders would be wise to carefully strategise how they campaign for free and fair elections.

High profile claims of fraud can undermine supporters’ morale and make them worry that victory is not possible. It is therefore important for opposition parties to marry negative messaging about the risk of manipulation with positive messaging about the steps the party is taking to protect the vote.

Otherwise, there is a risk that campaigns to protect the quality of the elections will lead to lower turnout among APC supporters, further tilting the electoral playing field in the favour of the ruling party.

There's more to this story

Get unlimited access to our exclusive journalism and features today. Our award-winning team of correspondents and editors report from over 54 African countries, from Cape Town to Cairo, from Abidjan to Abuja to Addis Ababa. Africa. Unlocked.

Subscribe Now

cancel anytime