Party politics in Sierra Leone have a long and lively history. The Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), formed in 1951, dominated politics from its inception until 1967, when the All People's Congress (APC) claimed to have won a plurality of the seats in a disputed parliamentary election. The SLPP combined the Sierra Leone Organization Society, founded in the protectorate in 1946, and the Freetown People's Party, founded in the colony by the Rev. Etheldred Jones, also known as Lamina Sankoh. Although the SLPP won only 2 seats of the 7 open to election in 1951, it was given recognition when the indirectly elected protectorate members and eight paramount chiefs joined with it. In 1953, Milton Margai became chief minister, and in 1957, the SLPP won 26 of the 39 seats being contested.
During the pre-APC period, the National Council of Sierra Leone (NCSL), founded in 1951, was the principal opposition group. It was influential only in the colony and favored a federal constitution with separate assemblies for the colony and the protectorate. When universal adult suffrage was introduced in 1957, the NCSL lost all its seats in the legislature. The United People's Party (UPP) was founded in 1956 by Cyril Rogers-Wright and Wallace Johnson to unite the interests of the colony and the protectorate. In the 1957 general elections, it won one seat in the legislature and gained three more after election petitions to the courts, so that it then constituted the principal legislative opposition.
In September 1958, Siaka Stevens and Milton Margai's half-brother, Albert Margai, withdrew from the SLPP and formed the People's National Party (PNP) to pursue a more militant policy. In 1960, the PNP and UPP joined the United National Front of all parties for the April constitutional talks in London. A national coalition government was formed, and Albert Margai became a cabinet minister.
Stevens left the United Front to form a new opposition group, the Elections Before Independence Movement (EBIM). Expelled from the PNP, he transformed the EBIM into the APC and, with support from younger radicals and much of the trade union movement, campaigned for a neutralist foreign policy and the need for a general election before independence. In March 1961, Stevens and some of his supporters were charged with sedition, libel, and incitement and were jailed just before independence under emergency regulations. They were later released and acquitted of the charges.
In the election of 25 May 1962, the SLPP won 28 of 62 seats for ordinary members of the House of Representatives, the APC 16, the Sierra Leone Progressive Movement 4, and independents 14. After the election returns were announced, 12 of the independents declared themselves members of the SLPP, and Milton Margai was able to form a new government. Upon his death on 28 April 1964, Albert Margai became prime minister. Thirteen months of military rule followed the disputed 1967 elections, after which Siaka Stevens, leader of the APC, became Prime Minister.
Siaka Stevens, president from 1971 to 1985, created the APC in 1960. The APC dominated from 1967 until April 1992. In September 1970, another opposition group, the United Democratic Party, was formed. Shortly afterward, a state of emergency was declared, and on 8 October, the party was banned. The SLPP won 15 seats in the 1977 elections, the last in which an opposition party was allowed to participate. In the 1983 balloting, 173 candidates competed for 66 seats, and the remaining 19 elective seats (mostly held by members of the outgoing government) were uncontested. In 1978, a new constitution made the APC the sole legal party, and the SLPP was formally dissolved. Members of parliament were required to declare themselves members of the APC on penalty of losing their seats.
In the 1986 balloting, 335 candidates competed for the 105 popularly elected seats. Over half the sitting members, including three cabinet ministers, were defeated, and over 60% of those elected were newcomers to the House. After the April 1992 military coup, all political parties were banned and parliament was dissolved. In 1993 a timetable was prepared for a return to civilian rule and a multiparty democracy. Captain Valentine Strasser assumed leadership during the 1992 coup, but was overthrown in 1996.
In February 1996, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, candidate of the National Peoples Party, was elected president with 59.4% of the vote. Fifteen parties registered for the 1996 elections. In the parliamentary competition for 80 seats (68 elected members; 12 paramount chiefs), the SLPP took 27 seats, the UNPP 17, the PDP 12, the APC 5, the NUP 4, and the DCP 3. These were the first elections since the former House of Representatives had been shut down by the military coup of April 1992. In November 1999, the RUF changed its name to the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP) and Foday Sankoh gave addresses around the country as though he were running for president.
With a cease-fire in place, elections were held in May 2002. In a landslide victory, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, candidate of the SLPP obtained 70.06% of the vote to defeat Ernest Koroma of the APC. Koroma received 22.4% of the vote, while the PLP gained 3%, and others took 4.59%. The Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP) and its chairman Foday Sankoh, were thoroughly discredited. In the parliamentary contest, the SLPP captured 83 seats, the APC 27 seats, and the PLP 2 seats.