Election debates in Sierra Leone: Scoping for scale-up

Project Active from to State

  • During Sierra Leone’s 2012 parliamentary elections, an IGC study found that on a constituency level, publicly-screened debates between rival political candidates had a significant impact on voter knowledge and behaviour, and in turn the subsequent performance of elected MPs.
  • Encouraged by these findings, this project sought to find the best ways to scale up debates between rival political candidates in more constituencies for the 2018 parliamentary elections in Sierra Leone.
  • The project found that by using multiple cost-effective platforms, like well-publicised cinema screenings or distributed DVDs, voter engagement with debates could be feasibly scaled up to other constituencies.
  • With the knowledge gained from this project, intraparty debates were held in December 2017 and interparty MP debates in February 2018. The latter were also broadcast on a number of television channels and live on over 40 radio stations.

In a developing country context such as Sierra Leone, political information is scarce, in part due to limited media penetration. Citizens often vote for candidates with little knowledge of the candidate’s future role, policy stances, qualifications, or past performance.

Debates offer a unique platform for candidates to communicate a wide range of information to their constituents, including hard facts on qualifications and policy stances, as well as “soft” information on more intangible characteristics such as persuasiveness and charisma.

Increasing constituents’ exposure to candidate debates can thus improve voter knowledge in a way that makes their electoral participation more responsive to politician quality and effort, which in turn strengthens the incentive for politicians to perform better in office.

Findings from an IGC study during the 2012 parliamentary elections in Sierra Leone suggested that publicising candidate debates corresponds to a significant improvement in the political knowledge of voters, ultimately influencing their vote. For example, in constituencies with screened debates, the share of voters who knew candidates’ top spending priorities doubled (from 14% to 29%) and voters at polling stations were 9% more likely to have voted for a candidate whose top priority issue aligned with theirs.

Encouraged by the results of this study, this follow-on IGC funded project sought to assess the feasibility of scaling up debates to more constituencies for the 2018 parliamentary elections.

In constituencies where debates were held – it was vital to reach as a wide an audience as possible through cost-effective means that could be replicated elsewhere. This project found that the most cost-effective and easily scalable way to reach a wide audience was to use local cinema halls as standard screening venues. By using these cinema halls, the cost of transporting heavy screening equipment to different towns could be avoided.

In addition to this, the project recommended that special outdoor screenings could take place in the largest town within a constituency as a way to publicize cinema  screenings in smaller towns. Other media, like DVDs distributed to community leaders, and broadcasting the debates on local radio were recommended too.

The findings from this project demonstrate a cost-effective means of way increasing voter knowledge and potentially politician performance not just in Sierra Leone, but in other developing countries too.