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Sierra Leone to Hold Local Elections Next Week - 2004-05-14

For the first time in three decades, Sierra Leone is preparing to hold local elections next week. There is little or no competition in more than half of the districts.

About 2.5 million people have registered to vote in the elections on May 22 to fill offices in more than 390 regional and municipal districts.

But for more than 80 of these districts, there are no candidates. In over 80 others, there was only one candidate, so no voting will take place there either, and the sole candidate has already been declared the winner.

The ruling Sierra Leone People's Party has already been awarded 77 seats, and the main opposition party, the All People's Congress, has obtained six seats. In other districts, where there will be competition, the opposition has accused tribal chiefs of taking bribes to favor the ruling party. The chiefs deny the accusations.

The opposition is also complaining it was promised more money from international donors and civil society groups to ensure democracy takes hold in Sierra Leone.

The country has recently come out of a decade-long civil war, which followed years of military and corrupt government rule.

A peace negotiator during the civil war that left 200,000 dead and thousands of others maimed, Omrie Golley, says the lack of strong opposition could jeopardize Sierra Leone's transition to democratic rule.

?The process has been haphazard, in my view, and, obviously, decentralization of government and grass roots local politics is extremely important after the war and developing through that,? he said. ?But it has been very haphazard in the way that it has been organized, the inclusion process, to possibly not make it as effective, in terms of its results and what we all want.?

One of the parties not fielding candidates in the local elections is the former rebels' Revolutionary United Front. Its members say their party's constitution requires that funding for any election be provided by their leader.

But the RUF says it has yet to replace the former leader, the late Foday Sankoh. He died last year while in the custody of a special U.N. war crimes court for Sierra Leone.

The European Union is footing about a third of the $8.00-million bill to cover logistical costs of the elections. It had decided earlier to withhold funds because of allegations of corruption within Sierra Leone's National Electoral Commission, but reversed its decision when the allegations were cleared up.

Several hundred local observers will be monitoring the vote.

Presidential and parliamentary elections, which were held in 2002, were declared free and fair by international monitors, but members of the electoral commission allegedly stole some of the international aid money intended to cover election costs.

A complete overhaul of this commission was one of the changes the European Union demanded as a condition for releasing new funds.