The ruling Sierra Leone People's Party, led by the current vice-president, Solomon Berewa, is facing a keenly awaited political contest on Aug. 11, when Sierra Leoneans go to the polls to elect a new president, as well as parliamentary representatives. The polls are the second to take place in Sierra Leone since the ending of a brutal, 11-year civil war in 2002.

During the first elections in 2002, the People's Party won by a landslide, taking 70 per cent of the votes against their main opposition party, the All People's Congress' 24 per cent.

During the tumultuous civil war period, at least 50,000 people were killed, two million displaced and 300,000 civilians were deliberately maimed through the amputation of limbs and other physical atrocities at the hands of renegade government soldiers and members of the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel movement backed by former Liberian president and warlord, Charles Taylor, in his quest for power.

By all accounts, this election is being regarded as the litmus test for the country's fragile democracy, as the country attempts to demonstrate to its peers in the region and elsewhere on the continent the civic maturity of its electorate and the successful state-building efforts. The question now remains as to whether the elections will indeed be regarded as a touchstone on the country's path to long-term intra-state stability and legitimate statehood, or whether it will become yet another failed opportunity for it to consolidate peace, which had been eluding the country since its independence from Britain back in 1961.

Although 28 parties are fielding candidates for the upcoming elections, only three are regarded as having a credible chance of winning. Berewa, the incumbent vice-president, is a slight favourite, having won the nomination of his party in 2005. A distinguished lawyer prior to his appointment as attorney-general and minister of justice in 1996, and vice-president in 2002, Berewa has earned himself a reputation as a capable, thorough and decisive politician. However, his nomination resulted in the defection of some party members and the formation of a breakaway faction, led by Charles Margai, who subsequently formed the People's Movement for Democratic Change. He has been a fixture on the political landscape since 1973, when he first stood as a People's Party candidate in the parliamentary elections, and subsequently as an outspoken critic of the ruling party since losing the People's Party leadership contest to Berewa.

The third major candidate, Ernest Koroma, leads the All People's Congress, a party that once ruled the country for more than 41 years. As a former insurance executive, prior to his nomination as All People's Congress leader and presidential candidate in the 2002 polls, Koroma is viewed as an efficient, yet inexperienced politician.

As was to be expected, the focus of this year's elections is on how to best address the developmental crisis facing the country. Sierra Leone almost finds itself at the bottom of the United Nations development program's human development index, ranking 176 out of 177 countries. With more than 68 per cent of the population living on less than $2 a day, a life expectancy of 41, a per capita gross national income of $220, and an unemployment rate of more than 70 per cent, government has had its work cut out for it over the past five years.

At present, it appears to be focusing on reassuring voters this time round of its continued commitment to accelerate macro-economic reforms. To his credit, Berewa received praise from multilateral monetary institutes for presiding over an economic recovery that is slowly underway.

With the assistance of the International Monetary Fund, the country completed a poverty reduction and growth facility program, which helped to stabilize economic growth and reduce inflation.

In 2006, real GDP growth averaged seven per cent, which was up from minus 2.4 per cent during the civil war, lasting from 1985 to 1995. This rise is largely supported by increased activities in the mining, construction, service and agricultural sectors, coupled with a tight fiscal stance, supported by an adequate monetary policy. Alluvial diamond mining once again became the major source of hard currency earnings, accounting for half the country's exports. Legal exports increased to $142 million in 2005, which was up from $1.2 million in 1999, thanks to an UN-approved diamond export certification system that had been implemented in 2002, and which facilitated the management of exports.

In the meantime, it appears as though all three parties' campaign platforms outline a similar grand strategy for development, while touching upon issues such as the country's integration into the international trading system, the improvement of the educational sector, as well as the health care system, further training of military personnel to ensure intra-state stability, an improvement in infrastructure, access to clean water and electricity, the provision of food and the creation of jobs for the unemployed youth. The overall objectives seem to be good governance, transparency and accountability.

With election fever descending on Freetown and on other major urban areas around the country, there appears to be heightened political tension and subsequent clashes amongst the main political parties, particularly between the People's Party and the People's Movement for Democratic Change.

However, with the expected low intensity friction amongst political parties in the country, expectations remain that things should go smoothly. The independent National Election Committee successfully completed the registration of voters. From July 10 onwards, the critical phase of the electoral campaign got underway without any major incidents.

To ensure the correctness of the proceedings and establish trust amongst the population, representatives of the European Union attended the ongoing election campaigns and will act as international observers. For their part, the major presidential candidates stated in past interviews that they would accept defeat peacefully, provided that the elections were conducted in a free and fair manner.

While there appears to be an increased sense of urgency amongst Sierra Leonean political leaders to shed the image of their country as one of West Africa's most volatile, unstable and conflict-ridden states, skepticism remains as to whether they would be able to resolve internal grievances and disputes, while curbing their political aspirations to match the rhetoric. Although free and fair elections in this once failed state would signify the successful implementation of the state-building initiatives required to sustain peace and promote economic development, a failed election, on the other hand, marred by increased violence and electoral irregularities, could inevitably result in renewed conflict. This, however, would depend largely on a fair electoral process and the fulfilment of political promises.

Without it actually being acknowledged, all eyes will remain focused on Sierra Leone as it puts its resolve, to turn its back indefinitely on a dark and turbulent past, to the test.

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