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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 September 2007, 01:16 GMT 02:16 UK
Democracy wins in S Leone's polls
By Will Ross
BBC News, Freetown

Opposition supporters celebrate their candidate's win in Sierra Leone's presidential election in Freetown
The opposition won 53% of votes

It was clear early on that this was unlike many elections in Africa.

Before even a single ballot in the presidential poll had been cast, the governing party was complaining of rigging.

On election day itself the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) accused the police of bias.

A party in power being cheated? It was an unusual claim.

The familiar scenario in so many elections across Africa is of a very uneven playing field, with the pitch sloping in favour of the governing party.

But in Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma of the opposition All People's Congress (APC) has won with 53% of the total votes compared to 44% for the outgoing Vice President, Solomon Berewa.

Helping hand

Mr Koroma was given a huge helping hand when former minister Charles Margai broke away from the governing party and later called for his supporters to back the APC candidate in the run-off vote.

On the campaign trial, the APC candidate, a former insurance broker, was confident of victory.

"You cannot fatten your pig on market day," said Mr Koroma.

Christiana Thorpe
There is no longer a place for fraud and malpractice in the Sierra Leone electoral system
Christiana Thorpe
National Electoral Commission

It will be a tough defeat to take for the SLPP and even as it stared them in the face, party officials were in a serious state of denial.

The electorate has sent a clear message to the country's politicians - the majority of voters felt the government was not doing enough to eradicate poverty in this mineral rich country.

There was also a widespread perception that the outgoing government was corrupt.

The newly-created National Electoral Commission (NEC) has done a good job at trying to keep the playing field level thanks largely to its boss - the former nun and headteacher, Christiana Thorpe.

Sierra Leoneans have witnessed a well-organised poll and the fair but firm Ms Thorpe dealt with election malpractice the same way she might have reacted to finding one of her former students cheating in exams.

But judging by the attempts in Sierra Leone's election, her pupils would probably have been better at cheating.

Fake results

"During the verification process we discovered counterfeit results forms which were sent to the NEC from polling stations throughout the country," said Ms Thorpe.

"It was not difficult to detect them as they contained a spelling mistake in the title. The word 'form' was spelled 'from'."

Then results from 477 polling stations had to be annulled because the cheaters had been over-enthusiastic, recording more than 100% turn out.

Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma
Don't forget the youth and be watchful of wolves in sheep's clothing
Brima Karl Samura, Freetown

Those stations where miraculously more people had voted than were registered were largely but not exclusively in government strongholds.

The head of the commission said a very important message had emerged from the elections.

"There is no longer a place for fraud and malpractice in the Sierra Leone electoral system," said Ms Thorpe.

"The people of Sierra Leone deserve to exercise their rights in an atmosphere of freedom, fairness and transparency."

Rewind the clock a few years and the situation was very different.

"This has been one of the best-run elections I have witnessed," says Eldred Jones, the respected ex-principal of Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone's main university.

"Some of our elections in the past have been horrific with violence and interference. People being put into sacks and conveyed to their opponents as gifts."

Ethnic divisions

Just five years ago many Sierra Leoneans had voted overwhelmingly for the SLPP in both parliamentary and presidential elections.

Solomon Ekuma Berewa
Solomon Berewa could only poll 44%
Almost six years after the end of the decade-long war, people are desperate to see improvements in their lives. Jobs, electricity, health care and education are the main priorities.

The election has reopened some of the regional and ethnic divisions with the country split between the two main parties.

One of Mr Koroma's top priorities will need to be reuniting the population.

But he knows the electorate want results and soon.

"If Ernest Bai Koroma doesn't perform, we'll boot him out in the next election," one man told me, referring to the APC leader.

But Mr Koroma was not the only winner in Sierra Leone's election.

It looks like democracy won too.

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