Following the declaration of John Dramani Mahama’s narrow victory, Nelson Oppong takes an in-depth look at elections and beyond in Ghana. He emphasises the need for change in the Electoral Commission’s approach to decision making, assesses the prospects for programmatic platforms and pragmatic politics in the country and asks whether the New Patriotic Party can pose a threat to the ruling National Democratic Congress in the future. Nelson is a DPhil candidate in International Development, at the University of Oxford.
Ghana’s incumbent president, John Dramani Mahama, of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC), secured a renewed mandate from Ghanaian voters in a closely contested general election over the weekend. According to the Electoral Commission, Mahama, who took over after the untimely death of the John Atta Mills, secured 50.7% of valid votes against 47.7% for leading opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo.
Several domestic and international observers commended Ghana for a “generally free and fair election” but the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) has challenged the results and said it will take the matter to the courts, accusing the ruling government of colluding with electoral officers to fraudulently manipulate electoral figures.
This issue aside, the acrimony of some political campaigning, the complexities of the electoral process and system, and the underperformance of the Electoral Commission (EC) have presented challenges to the capacity of Ghana’s electoral system to adequately manage the increasingly complex nature of the country’s electoral democracy. Changing social and political features mean that Ghana’s respected democratic institutions must fight to maintain their legitimacy and cohesive role.
Political evolution in Ghana
The 2012 general elections were the sixth since 1992, and in the intervening period the country has nurtured relatively stable and regionally-envied democratic institutions. As demonstrated by the high voter turn-out of almost 80%, most Ghanaians have embraced the electoral system as a means of delivering shared national goals and maintaining an overall political stability.
After over two decades of relative stability, Ghana is seen as a beacon of peace and good governance in a region that has more than its fair share of governmental dysfunction, institutionalised corruption, and endemic political violence. The country is among the fastest growing economies in the world, and is expected to make moves towards increased industrialisation thanks to the development of a commercial oil and gas sector and prudent economic management.
The past decades have, however, presented a number of challenges to the political system in Ghana. While many have noted the country’s impressive growth in both economy and good governance, there have been serious concerns about the distribution of political and economic gains. Inequality has been identified in the growth in income disparity and widening inter/intra-regional developmental discrepancies. The institutional make-up of the Ghanaian state, with its emphasis on presidential centralisation, has also stoked a tendency towards ‘winner-takes-all’ politics that have driven the country’s leading political parties to increasingly acrimonious engagement and, on a few occasions, close to violence.
Managing Ghana’s “Game of Thrones”
The independent and effective electoral system, spearheaded by the Electoral Commission, has been central in providing Ghana with political stability since 1992. The commission has worked with various international and national political players to progressively refine the electoral system. Through various initiatives, such as transparent ballot boxes, compilation and verification of a credible voters’ register and commitment to transparent monitoring schemes, the EC has gained credibility in the minds of Ghanaians as a credible arbiter of political competition.
The build-up and conduct of the 2012 elections tested the resources and will of the EC. Prior to the elections, the commission was locked in a drawn-out debate with the opposition NPP, as well as several NGOs, over the introduction of a biometric electoral register and verification. The debate was resolved with the introduction of the principle of No Verification, No Vote (NVNV). Furthermore, the decision of the commission to create 45 new constituencies just weeks before the election drew strong criticism from the clergy, student groups and the NPP, being seen by some as potential gerrymandering.
The consistent support that the EC has received from the ruling NDC in many of these disagreements had been wrongly interpreted as a convenient marriage for election rigging. Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, chairman of the EC, has also come under mounting criticism. The former political science lecturer’s sense of calm and good judgement in the face of uncertainty has gained respect within and outside Ghana. However, many expressed concern that Afari-Gyan has blurred the line between confidence and arrogance, especially over some of the issues that require consensus rather that declarations and directives.
The recent election also featured some practical and infrastructural setbacks. Election monitors recorded several instances of logistical breakdown, particularly with the new biometric verification machines, while some polling stations reportedly opened very late. In some electoral areas, like Nadowli-Kaleo, there were reports that the principle of NVNV was violated. Worst still, for the first time since the infamous “Stolen Verdict” in 1992, the electoral body’s credibility has been questioned through accusations of collusion with the incumbent president.
Civil Society and the strengthening of “Soft Institutions”
As the EC comes to terms with concerns about its capacity and credibility, what has become clear is the increasing significance of ‘soft institutions’ such as the National Peace Council led by traditional and religious leaders and some civil society groups, in supporting Ghana’s electoral system.
Indeed, prior to the elections, the various presidential candidates signed a peace pact, known as the Kumasi Declaration. Under the pact, the candidates renounced violence and admonished their supporters to commit to a peaceful election. The pact was part of several civic platforms that promoted political dialogue such as the IEA Presidential Debates and constituency presentations by parliamentary aspirants under the auspices of the Centre for Democratic Development.
The soft institutions proved decisive in highlighting electoral glitches and leading calls for calm. Their strategic role was given due recognition by the AU/ECOWAS Observer Mission which, among others, called for statutory backup of platforms such as the Inter-Party Advisory Committee (IPAC).
Delivering the “Better Ghana Agenda”: from populism to pragmatism
Ghana began its current democratic journey following a decade of stringent liberal reforms with an emphasis on economic efficiency and private-sector-led growth. While the reforms had several fraught implications, the one which has most marked the country’s political landscape has been the rise of political promises of unsustainable and knee-jerk welfare initiatives that have made little impact on poverty alleviation and caused strained the national purse.
In 2000 for instance, the NPP’s electoral victory was secured on the back of a promise of National Health Insurance Scheme that is still seen as problematic because of a weak financial base. The tendency towards populist welfare promises was at play during the 2008 elections when the then opposition NDC rode to power on promises of an almost free national health insurance package, free food and uniforms for all basic schools, and significant increases in the state petroleum subsidy. The growing chasm between electoral welfare promises and delivery has contributed to a growing sense of cynicism among some Ghanaian voters.
The major policy issue that dominated the 2012 elections was the NPP’s Free Senior High School (SHS) election promise. President Mahama’s response was generally wobbly and indecisive. Apart from his programme of free laptop distribution, for which he might be accused of flagrantly abusing his incumbency, and a vague commitment to quality education, the president secured victory without a clearly articulated concrete welfare promise.
The president’s “non-issue” campaign, while attracting much criticism, immensely benefitted from the expressed voter cynicism regarding welfare promises. Hence, as president, Mahama may have a good opportunity to establish himself as a more pragmatic leader, without suffering the policy constraints which come with over-promising.
NPP: A credible alternative but a weak electoral machine
The NPP is still reeling under another bitter defeat to the NDC that could dent the party’s confidence and even undermine its chances of taking over the reins of government in the future. It remains to be seen how the court case will develop, but it is possible the party could enter a long judicial and political battle that could run over the four-year term of President Mahama.
The NPP has long been associated with Ghana’s democratic struggle and received much commendation for further deepening Ghana’s good governance credentials while in government between 2001 and 2009. However, during the 2008 general elections, party in-fighting and failure to respond to sensitive political issues that emerged during the election year led to an unexpected defeat. The NPP has since embarked on internal reforms to deepen and widen its internal democratic processes and structures. During the 2012 elections, the party sought to take advantage of the “non-performance” of the NDC government with an ambitious programme to transform Ghana, to win back political power.
The outcome of the elections, and failure to secure parliamentary majority (presuming their accusations of widespread systematic fraud are unfounded), has revealed that the party’s quest to win the support of majority of Ghanaians is still a work in progress. During the election, the NPP’s political strategy especially in handling the sensitive matter of peaceful political rivalry appeared vague. Notably, the posturing of Akufo-Addo amidst the party’s “all die be die” chants never sat well with many people, in spite of assurances that it was a cry for vigilance in the face of intimidation and failed national security.
However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the prospects of the party in the next four years. Indeed, few Ghanaians question the NPP’s credibility in providing a formidable alternative to the NDC. If there has been any benefit that the NPP has secured from the election, it is the fact that it has been overwhelmingly associated with a strong progressive platform that could win some new admirers in the future.
The NPP’s support base has traditionally come from the urban middle class, petite bourgeoisie and small rural farmers. Successive elections in Ghana have consistently shown this demographic insufficient for a decisive electoral victory. The party thus embarked on a new programme to win new constituents in peri-urban areas and settler communities after its defeat in 2008.
Apart from the promise of free senior high school (SHS), the party also reached out to new demographics by promising a Zongo Development Fund for the Zongo/Settler Communities in the cities,
and pledging to build hostels for impoverished migrant head porters (locally known as Kayeye). The NPP’s drive for these new constituencies – mostly from northern Ghana – was challenged, however, by Mahama’s appeal to his northern origins. Furthermore, the NPP’s later strategy of defending free SHS as expanding free education from the north to the south reinforced perceptions of them being an Akan/Southern-based party during the campaign.
While the 2012 general elections have presented a number of challenges to the country’s electoral system, Ghana has managed to keep its democratic credentials intact. However, the EC must critically examine its performance in order to strengthen its legitimacy going forward.
How the elections will shape competitive politics and policy making in Ghana will be revealed over the next four years. Nonetheless, while various dynamics of the real impact of the elections remain uncertain, one thing remains for sure – changing demographics and political perceptions mean that the electoral landscape is changing beneath a relatively stable political system.
The courting of the peasantry and rural communities, peri-urban and settler communities, shows that that no political party in Ghana can secure electoral victory without appealing to this group. Furthermore, voters are treating the electoral pledges of candidates with a greater level of cynicism, perhaps leading to a more stable and more nuanced electoral politics.