On 7 December, Ghana goes to vote in the country’s seventh general elections. Following the introduction of multiparty politics in the early 1990s, the country has usually been recognized as one of the continent’s success stories when it comes to democratic credentials. But a number of concerns have emerged around the forthcoming event.
Ghana’s fourth republic has a unique track record for its democratic structures, institutions and practices. After six (largely) credible elections and two peaceful transfers of presidential powers from one party to another, democratic cultures seems to have taken root. Following the first multiparty elections organized under civilian rule in 1993, former Head of State J. J. Rawlings held power under the centre-left National Democratic Congress (NDC). In two periods that followed, the presidential office was occupied by the liberal-conservative New Patriotic Party (NPP) under Kufuor. The closely contested 2008 elections threw the NDC, under A. Mills’ leadership, back into powers. Whilst winning the presidency with only a tiny margin at 50.23 percent in the second round of voting, the NPP peacefully vacated the presidential offices and business as usual commenced.
But the 2012 contest put the cracks in the system on display. With only a few thousand votes above the 50 percent threshold in the first round of voting, J. Mahama who had taken over as president following Mill’s death in office, was announced winner of the election. This time around, however, the opposition cried foul and accused the Electoral Commission (EC) for having tampered with the results. The ensuring court petition challenging the validity of the outcomes eventually kept Ghana in political limbo for months.
What’s at stake?
Against this background, Mahama is this year vying to take a second (elected) term in office whereas Akufo-Addo – who ran on the NPP ticket in both 2008 and 2012 – is hoping to become “third time lucky”. Facing increasing economic and social hardship, including high inflation and increasing taxes and petrol prices, the election campaign now unfolding evolve around issues linked to economic development, unemployment and poverty. After eight years in power, the NDC stands at front row to be blamed for the current situation. Unsurprisingly, the NPP is building its campaign around the narrative of a nation in crisis due in large parts to government mismanagement, incompetency and corruption.
Following the controversial decision made by the Electoral Commission to disqualify 12 candidates that intended to run for the presidency, only two other candidates – both men – will feature on the presidential ballot. With a political landscape dominated by the NDC and the NPP, neither will stand a chance at the big prize. However, the capacity of any of the two to pick up votes might determine whether a second round of voting will be necessary. Under Ghana’s electoral legislation, the president is required to win a minimum of 50 percent + one vote to access the office – if no candidate manages in the first round of voting, another round is organized between only the two top candidates.
The elections – and the future of democracy in Ghana
Beyond politics, the elections will provide a litmus test on Ghana’s ability to conduct credible and peaceful elections. The first matter of concern relates to public trust in the Electoral Commission who is responsible for managing the process – from voter registration to election day operations – in an independent and impartial fashion. Whilst recognized as a highly trustworthy institution for almost two decades, the debacle that followed the 2012 elections severely undermined the EC’s reputation. Over the past few years, public trust levels fell from 59 to 37 percent, and only 46 percent of the voters believe that the forthcoming elections are likely to be free and fair.
This is a bad starting point. There is indeed a chance that the EC can provide for flawless elections, but if perceptions about its ability – or even desire – to do so remains low, such perceptions can easily be utilized by the losing side of the election to undermine the credibility of the outcome. Corruption scandals involving the courts adds to the situation: whilst previously saluted for successfully arbitrating in elections-related disputes in the past, a discredited judiciary adds to the problem. We have already seen it too often on the African continent – the losing side rejecting the election outcome, calling for its supporters to take to the streets with widespread violence and dead bodies as the result.
This brings us to the second major concern. Because, whilst intimidation, harassment and violence have featured previous elections as isolated incidents – this time around it may be different. Visiting in August this year, the joint ECOWAS-AU-UN high-level mission aiming to contribute to sustainable democracy in Ghana expressed serious concern regards the situation and “acknowledged the genuine risk of electoral violence”. Violent riots and protests have increased over the past few years – from 24 in 2013 to 63 in 2015. More specifically linked to the election, however, is the emergence of politically affiliated vigilant groups, i.e. none-state armed groups that engage in disruptive electoral activities to protect the interests of their “mother party” adds to the situation. Last year, by-elections organized in the eastern parts of the country saw the rise of such groups associated with the two leading parties – the so-called Azorka Boys (linked to the NDC) and the Bolga Bulldogs (linked to the NPP). Whilst the government has repeatedly underscored its intention to “deal decisively with election trouble makers” and the police has deemed “macho-men” illegal and unconstitutional, security threats remain real to voters and electoral contestants alike and is charging the electoral environment.
Will Africa’s model democracy cope?
With less than a month to go to Election Eay, electoral campaigns are in full vigour and preparation for the elections are progressing. The elections might be the toughest test to Ghana’s democratic progress. However, after more than two decades, the country has developed rigorous institutions that are capable of protecting the credibility of the elections. Experience tells us that political parties are willing to use formal channels for addressing electoral grievances and to respect the rule of law. The electoral commission has a good record of accomplishment and, notwithstanding the ongoing court cases, its new Chair, C. Osei, has been praised by her peers for doing a good job within a rather challenging environment. It should also be mentioned that Ghana has a vibrant civil society that have played a constructive part to promoting the democratic project including to enhance the integrity of elections through e.g. civic/voter education and election observation.
The developments show that democracy remains a continuous battle. Ghana is certainly not alone. All across the continent, democratic architectures – built on laws, institutions and processes – are repeatedly challenged. Ultimately, it is the degree to which structures remain capable of resisting or fighting back that will determines whether democracy can become (or remain) the only game in town.
Mette Bakken is a Programme Officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and its regional office based in Addis Ababa.
Mathias Hounkpe is a Programme Manager for the Political Governance Programme at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) based in Dakar.
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