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Sierra Leone’s two main political parties, the All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), have introduced new rules for choosing candidates for the forthcoming parliamentary and local council elections. The rules seek to give more say to voters at the constituency level than was the case in previous elections when party big wigs called the shots. Both parties are aware that the award of party symbols by the party hierarchy had in the past been fraught with problems, as defeated candidates transferred their loyalties to other parties or became less enthusiastic in campaigning for winning candidates or working for their parties in general elections.
Under the new rules, the APC has adopted what it calls an electoral college: influential voters in the constituencies who putatively represent key groups, such as traders, drivers, okada bike riders, hunting and bondo societies, teachers, religious bodies and other community-based organizations are identified by a committee of the party to act as an electoral college.
The SLPP, on the other hand, has appointed committees to assess the popularity of contestants by speaking to groups and individuals in the various constituencies. The party strives for a consensus candidate after such consultations, and holds elections that are similar to those of an electoral college if divisions are irreconcilable.
The new rules for selecting the flag bearers of the two parties are clearly a step in the right direction. First, they are likely to ensure that those selected will enjoy broad support within their party in the constituency they seek to represent rather than rely on the patronage of powerful individuals in the party hierarchy.
Second, the rules may have the added advantage of making incumbents work hard in defending the interests of their constituents. This may introduce a double process of holding office holders to account: within the parties at the primaries, and between the parties during general elections.
This double process of accountability is especially important in constituencies where one party is overwhelmingly dominant and voters are reluctant to switch allegiance even when their traditional party has performed poorly in office. In such situations, the electoral college may offer a party the opportunity to renew itself by replacing incumbents who are perceived to have underperformed. Already, the primaries for local councils have produced many surprises, with many incumbents, including mayors and chairpersons, losing elections. We should expect future incumbents to work harder in improving the lives of their constituents if they are to be assured of re-election.
However, the actual operation of the electoral college has thrown up a number of problems that are likely to discredit the system and undermine the goal of popular democracy at the grassroots level. Three such problems stand out. First, the primaries for local councils have shown that party leaders and executive members in local constituencies, who are also members of the electoral college, wield undue influence over the selection of individuals from various community groups in constituting the electoral college. There have been a large number of complaints that those entrusted to organize the elections at the local level skew the selection process in favour of candidates of their choice. One women’s leader at Aberdeen complained that her name was removed from the list of delegates because she was suspected of supporting a candidate that did not enjoy the confidence of the committee. This problem will not be eliminated even if, as is being suggested by some party officials, the selection committee is made up of “neutral” individuals who do not have voting rights in the constituency.
Second, because of the small size of the electoral college (it varies from 100 – 200 members), it is easy for rich candidates to bribe voters at the primaries. One incumbent parliamentarian from a constituency in Kambia has complained that two of his challengers from the Diaspora with strong financial resources have been distributing money and goods to members of the electoral college in his constituency.
Third, the preferences of group representatives (such as those for okada riders, traders, market women, teachers, etc.) who constitute the electoral college do not always reflect the wishes of the individuals they claim to represent. This is especially the case when elections are not held by the groups to determine the individuals who should represent them and express their voting preferences in the electoral college.
These three problems can be overcome by giving the vote to party members at the constituency level, as happens in more mature democracies. Empowering local party members to choose their representatives will check the biases of party leaders, ensure a level playing field for all candidates, and make it more costly to bribe voters. It will deepen the democratic process; force incumbents to deliver on promises; as well as improve local party organization, recruitment of party members, and systematic updating of membership lists. It will also encourage active citizenship and party activism at the local level.
By Yusuf Bangura, Freetown
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