Since the establishment of Ghana’s fourth republic in 1992, the country’s two major political parties have both, at different times, held a majority in the country’s 275-seat parliament. The 2020 parliamentary elections were unique, however, because the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) won 137 seats apiece, with a further seat held by an independent.
While there have been some very close outcomes since the re-introduction of democracy in 1992 — examples being the 2000 and 2008 elections where the NPP and NDC held a majority of 8 and 9 seats, respectively — never has there been a hung parliament, where the incumbent government fails to secure a “working majority”. This watershed result will mean different things to different actors in the political landscape. For the NPP, which won the presidential election and is therefore considered the government, it appears to represent a significant challenge. By contrast, for the opposition NDC the situation offers some consolation for losing out on the presidency in yet another close and contested election.
Meanwhile for civil society organisations, which have long agitated for policy changes with little ability to impose their agenda on political leaders, a hung parliament – and the prospect that the government may not simply be able to force legislation through with limited debate – represents a rare opportunity to shape the policy process.
So what should we look out for over the next four years of “parliamentary democracy”, as the current electoral outcome interacts with some well known dynamics of Ghana’s politics?
|Seats in Parliament (2016)
|Seats in Parliament (2020)
Source: Compiled by author from Electoral Commission’s poll data
1. The Politics of Sabotage and Compromises
There is a cynical yet popular view that many Ghanaians hold about their parliamentarians, namely that their so-called representatives only cooperate on matters concerning their salaries and allowances to make their stay in the Parliament House more comfortable. This is indicative of misplaced priorities and a superficial compromise culture in Ghana’s legislative politics. With the current situation, however, MPs will have to form alliances to deliberate over matters beyond their remuneration and comfort needs.
Given the nature of political competition between the two major parties, such collaborative efforts may not easily materialise, however. Elections in Ghana’s fourth republic are some of the most competitive in Africa. To maximise their chances of winning, political parties favour campaign strategies that often dwell on the incompetence and underperformance of their rivals. These dynamics of competition undermine consensus and undermine the prospects for compromise and collaboration. This is further exacerbated by the events of the last few years, when the governing NPP threw its weight (of a 63-seat majority in the previous parliament) around by ignoring most of the opposition NDC’s concerns about the government’s policy positions.
Despite such realities, there are some reasons to be optimistic that a serious culture of compromise could emerge. Research on Ghanaian MPs by Anja Osei has shown that despite partisan, geographic and ethnic divides, MPs often ‘eat together’ and have overlapping personal networks. This claim contrasts sharply with the widespread perception of intense antagonism that exists in the popular imagination.
It will be therefore be important then to look out for whether an informal, behind-the-scenes consensus will emerge on the substantive issues that will shape the political, social, and economic life of Ghanaians in the next four years.
2. Out of the Shadows?
With greater potential for parliamentary drama, the legislature is likely to play a central role in public discussions occurring across well-known channels of political communication including traditional and new media. We may, in other words, see more interesting news in the ‘From Parliament’ sections of the staple newspapers, and more news stories about parliament trending on Twitter and Facebook.
Such public debates may help to raise awareness of key issues and to arouse the interest of Ghanaians in political events and debates and how their individual MPs are contributing to them. This represents an important opportunity for MPs to explicitly address some of the deep-seated issues highlighted above.
With the election of the Speaker of Parliament from the opposition party, such discussions are already taking place and it is likely they will continue, hopefully for the better.
3. A Window of Opportunity for Civil Society Organisations (CSOs)
The last four years saw vibrant and resourceful CSOs scrutinise several government initiatives, notably the controversial Agyapa Royalties deal that proposed to sell about 76% of Ghana’s gold royalties to a Jersey-based company. The deal was contested by a host of CSOs but still went ahead to achieve parliamentary approval due to the NPP’s large majority. The opposition NDC, which was trailing the government by a majority of 63 seats, could only stage a walkout as an expression of their disagreement and frustration.
With the current state of affairs where the two parties are at parity, CSOs are more likely to be able to have a meaningful impact on the policy-making process, especially if they can shape media coverage and public opinion on contentious issues. In this regard, we should look out for a more assertive and activist civil society over the next four years – creating fresh opportunities for researchers of democracy in Ghana to examine and theorise state-society relations.
4. Reasons to Court the Electorate
One of the key themes of last December’s election that was impossible to miss was the relatively widespread ‘skirt and blouse’ voting patterns that resulted. This practice of voting for a presidential candidate of one party and parliamentary candidate of another reflects the growing growing sophistication of the Ghanaian electorate. It also sends a strong signal to current and future MPs to take their constituency representation and “linkage” roles seriously and to be visible and accessible to constituents throughout the entire parliamentary term and not just when primary elections roll around.
Given this, we should look out for MPs making an increasing number of trips “home” from the capital to maintain their support bases ahead of the next electoral cycle. Hopefully these additional trips will not simply cement patron-client relations, but will also be utilised for consultations with constituents about their needs and opinions on issues of development and democracy.
More broadly, it will be interesting to see whether Ghanaian politicians can live up to the country’s reputation as a shining beacon of democracy in Africa. In his victory and inauguration speeches, President Nana Akufo-Addo emphasised the need for both sides to work together to foster national unity. Ghanaians will be watching the legislature more closely than ever before to see whether their representatives are up to the task. It is important for the country’s future democratic consolidation that they are not disappointed.
Sam Anim is currently a doctoral researcher at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom.