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A man casts his ballot in Sierra Leone general elections in Freetown Saturday June 24, 2023.The Associated Press

Voters in Sierra Leone were deciding Saturday whether to give President Julius Maada Bio a second term in office amid high unemployment and growing concern about the state of the economy in the West African nation.

Bio faced a field of a dozen challengers though experts have predicted it’s likely his main competition will be Samura Kamara, the head of the All People’s Congress Party, whom he defeated in 2018.

To avoid a runoff, the winner must secure 55 per cent of the vote. In the previous election, Bio beat Kamara in the runoff by a margin of less than five percentage points.

Bio has been facing increasing criticism because of debilitating economic conditions, which his opponent is pledging to fix. Nearly 60 per cent of Sierra Leone’s population of more than 7 million are facing poverty, with youth unemployment being one of the highest in West Africa.

Multiple deadly anti-government protests have rocked the country during Bio’s term, with calls for him to step down. Fuelled by a rise in cost of living, the latest one last August left dozens dead, including security forces.

Margaret Ngegba, a trader in the capital of Freetown, said she hoped for a winner “who feels for us and provides our children jobs.”

“Right now things are so hard that if you buy something today for 25 leones, the next day you go it’s 50,” she said. “Imagine that. How can our businesses survive in this situation? I have to pay rent and I have six children to take care of.”

A former military head of state, Bio came to power promising to end rampant corruption. Analysts say that he invested in improving education in the country and took steps to fight rampant corruption. But the weak economy has drawn criticism, with Sierra Leoneans taking to the streets protesting widespread poverty.

Bio’s opponent, Kamara, has served in various government positions including as foreign minister. On the eve of the election, he sharply criticized the incumbent government and called for voters to support him.

“We have one chance, the chance to drive away this difficult regime that has put us through suffering in the last five years and added to our misery,” he said in a video message released by his campaign team.

Saturday’s vote is the country’s fifth presidential election since the end of a brutal 11-year civil war more than two decades ago.

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