Most analysts say the first locally organized elections since the civil war ended in 2002 are pivotal to stability and democratization in Sierra Leone, one of the world's poorest and least developed countries. Despite their nation's wealth of gold, minerals and diamonds, more than 60 percent of Sierra Leoneans live below the poverty line. Nearly a third of the nation's estimated six million people were displaced during the war, which claimed tens-of-thousands of lives.
New Elections - New Voters
John Hirsch, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone during the Clinton administration, is a senior fellow at the International Peace Academy research group in New York. He says Saturday's elections present Sierra Leone an opportunity to move toward political reform and economic development.
"For the first time, this is a constituency-based election for the parliament, which means that each member of parliament will actually be representing part of a certain district in the country, rather than just [being] broadly elected without reference to a district. So I think the president and the parliament will really have an obligation to the people in the different districts. In other words, it will be a closer relationship between the government and the people," says Hirsh.
With more than half of the country's 2.6 million voters under the age of 35, most analysts expect the younger generation to play a big role in these elections. Carolyn Norris, the International Crisis Group's West Africa project director, says many of the parliamentary candidates are young and new to the political scene and promise to bring the biggest change to Sierra Leone.
"So it's a regeneration of politics. And that is something, when you think of the role the youth played in the conflict [i.e., as child soldiers] and the dislocation of youth in the country, that gets particularly important - that there is a larger role for younger people in politics. It is actually who gets the seats in parliament who will guarantee the success of reforms after these elections have passed," says Norris.
On the presidential campaign trail, seven candidates are running for office, although most analysts favor three - - Vice President Solomon Berewa of the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party, or SLPP, parliamentarian Ernest Koroma of the All Peoples Congress, or APC, and former cabinet minister Charles Margai, who broke away from the SLPP to form the Peoples Movement for Democratic Change, or PMDC.
While new to the scene, the PMDC could alter the political landscape, says Carolyn Norris of the International Crisis Group.
"There is a tradition that the APC has its stronghold in the north [and] the SLPP has its stronghold in the southeast, which is largely true. But, of course, the arrival of the PMDC has split that vote in the SLPP heartland and it is also making some inroads into the northern part of the country. And, of course, in Freetown where there is a real concentration of population, it's a much more open contest," says Norris.
For most analysts, the PMDC could be the spoiler in the presidential race. If one of the other two parties wins, William Zartman of the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies worries that the country could return to single-party rule.
"It will either mean continuity of the SLPP or it will mean a less responsible opposition party, the APC. coming in. Of course, we don't know what's going to happen with the PMDC, the breakaway movement from the SLPP The party that has been tested by recent responsibility in power, the SLPP, probably has a better sense of how to govern. But despite the sound record of [Ahmed Tejan] Kabbah, the outgoing president, it [i.e., SLPP] also has a temptation of becoming a single party [movement] again. So it's not just the elections. It's what's going to happen after the elections," says Zartman.
A Threat of Violence
Many analysts expect a run-off vote for the presidency and fear an outbreak of violence if the fairness of the elections is questioned or the results are contested. The International Peace Academy's John Hirsch says the country's electoral system makes a run-off election likely.
"In order to be the winner, the candidate needs to get 55 percent of the popular vote. And there is the possibility that [elections] may have to go into a second round. There's also the danger of reactions after the elections. One or another party may contest the results. And one of the recommendations of the international community
is that each of these three parties should have an observer at each of the 4,000-plus polling stations, so that they can assure themselves that the results are accurately counted and thereby avoid provocation after the election results come out," says Hirsh.
"The idea that political violence could emerge around this very important election, their first election after the civil war where the international community isn't basically shepherding the process, is very troubling," says Michelle Gavin of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. She worries about potential violence despite extensive security measures and the large presence of local and international election observers.
"There are very worrying reports about preelection conditions with regard to threats of violence, reports of intimidation. We should be concerned. It's a very real possibility. It's a very real danger. But I don't think that it's a foregone conclusion. And I hold out some hope that perhaps this could go reasonably well and the country can continue what's going to be a long road to recovery," says Gavin.
Most experts agree that whoever wins the presidential and parliamentary elections will have a tough job rebuilding Sierra Leone - fighting widespread corruption and poverty, and implementing the political and economic reforms necessary to put the country on a road to stability and development.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.