Kwasia dwa (A fool’s Market): How Ghana’s money-fueled primary elections harm its democracy

A party primary unfolds in Ghana/CREDIT: Ouborr Kutando
Facebook Twitter Email

By December 2024, Ghana will have achieved 32 years of uninterrupted democracy. In stark contrast to neighbours that are democratically regressing or being destabilised by coups, Ghana has long passed the Huntington test of two transfers of power. However, its democracy is not yet fully consolidated, and amid concerns about vote buying and electoral violence, most Ghanaians believe there is still some way to go.

A hidden and often overlooked institution that is playing into this process is the party primary. The primaries are the foundation of Ghana’s democracy, but established practices of vote buying at these primaries are undermining the way this democratic exercise plays out.

Politics in Ghana is dominated by two parties—the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC). These parties have institutionalized party primaries to select candidates who contest on their tickets in national elections. Over the years however, these primaries have been dominated by a “fool’s market” (Kwasia Dwa) where almost all candidates attempt to buy voters to varying extents of success.

Beyond distorting the primary process itself, vote buying undermines the integrity of Ghana’s democracy and discourages less resourced candidates from contesting. More significantly, it contributes to increasing public corruption, and the exclusion of women from participation in politics.

How Ghana’s party primaries work

Ghana’s primaries are neither the vast votes one sees in the United States, nor simply controlled by one or two people. On average there are 600 delegates per constituency who have voting rights during primary contests. These delegates are courted by political leaders, who know that their success depends on persuading this small “selectorate” to support them when asked to express their preferences as an electoral college.

Consequently, candidates intending to context the primaries go to great lengths to demonstrate their financial viability in the run up to the polls.

This engagement, which begins months and years before the primary contest, entails providing financial assistance to pay school fees, hospital bills, house rents, funeral donations, baby naming ceremonies, business support and others; material assistance with food distribution, construction materials, agricultural inputs, as well as services like health screening and even bailing delegates from the police station in some cases.

At the same time, candidates may be expected to help through the provision of jobs and access to government services. Finally, candidates also come under pressure to provide communal gifts such as the construction of roads, schools, streetlights, boreholes, public toilets, funding the connection of areas to electricity, and other public goods.

This background spending ensures that candidates are seen to be credible, and is typically required for candidates to be seen as competitive. In other words, it represents the candidates “buying” a ticket to enter the competition but only that – it does not secure them success, as other candidates will have been doing the same thing.

Nearer the primary, spending then rapidly increases, in part because delegates escalate their demands and candidates respond in equal measure. Campaign events must end with the provision of “transport” for the delegates, for example, meaning that candidates must pay to be heard.

Evidence collected over the years reveals that considerable voter inducement occurs on the night before or day of voting by almost all aspirants. Delegates make it clear that unless they receive their gift package from a given candidate by the time voting starts, they will not consider that candidate for their vote. Personal items such as T-shirts, farming inputs, food items, television sets, mobile phones, pieces of clothing, fridges, bicycles, Motorbikes, microwaves, and cash lump sums ranging from 500 to 15,000 Cedis (US $40 to $12,000) have all been recorded as exchanging hands between candidates and delegates during this process.

Vote buying efficacy

The efficacy of vote buying attempts is unclear, however, as almost all candidates make vote buying attempts. My research on party primaries between 2020 and 2024 has revealed that they have become an all-pay vote-buying auction where winners pay to win, but losers also pay, and sometimes the candidate who pays the most ends up disappointed.

Monitoring the 2024 NPP primaries of constituencies with sitting MP’s, for example, showed that many candidates who paid more on the day of voting were less successful. In the 50 constituencies that I tracked, 45 candidates lost who paid more or about the same as the eventual winners. This is explained by the diminishing impact of vote buying when all candidates hand out gifts.

Another key factor is whether the money is seen to be legitimate, which is shaped by where it came from, and whether the candidate is seen to be credible, popular, and genuine.

As I wrote in my doctoral thesis, “almost all candidates make vote-buying attempts as part of their political strategy. Money is significant in contesting and winning primaries, but so are perceptions of who, when and how that money is given. Candidates cannot always win primaries by giving money, but at the same time, a candidate may not be able to win an election without giving money – in this sense, they can be thought of as the price of playing the game, but a price that is not determinant of its outcome.”

What determines the auction outcome?

Vote buying is more complex than it seems and is not simply transactional. Rather, it is imbued with moral and social economies and personal relationships. Put another way, money is necessary for candidates to enter the race, but vote outcomes were determined by whether they are able to form effective relationships that ensure that their gifts are seen to carry an obligation because they have moral weight.

Potential candidates must attend funerals, naming ceremonies, community programs and provide support over time as well as being respectful, humble, and consistently accessible.

Parliamentary primaries are mostly won by candidates who use the delivery of patronage goods and services to establish, develop, and sustain clientelist relationships over time in ways that are consistent with local expectations – i.e. that reflect the moral economy and social context in a given constituency. In this sense, primaries are not one-off transactions, and outcomes are shaped by long-term relationship building both inside and outside of election campaigns.

Vote buying is only really effective when it is integrated into a broader process of continuous engagement over many years to foster relationships that are mutually beneficial and rewarding. Because vote buying impacts are diminished by the all-pay vote-buying nature of the auction, the personality and “human” skills of the candidate can be as important as the amount of money that they hand out.

Urgent need for reform

While vote buying is not as straightforward as is usually depicted, this should not blind us to the damage that party primaries have caused. There is strong evidence that the amount spent by candidates to compete in primaries is increasing, with negative impacts on inclusion and other parts of the political system.

Contrary to existing literature, which tends to set the figure much lower, the cost of competitive primaries has now risen to over $500,000, and I estimate that more than 80% of that total is spent on building relationships and giving gifts. As a result, it is becoming harder and harder for candidates without deep pockets to be competitive.

The heavy cost of vote buying has also contributed to the exclusion of women and other marginalised groups who have ambition but lack the requisite financial strength to be deemed credible candidates. This is particularly significant given that despite being one of the continent’s most democratic states, Ghana ranks 141st in the world when it comes to women’s representation in parliament, with only 40 women of the 275 members.

When understood in this light, it is clear that Ghana’s rotten primary system means that its much celebrated democracy rests on shaky foundations.

It is therefore important to curtail vote buying and reduce the cost of running for office. Only this will encourage candidates – and hence Members of Parliament – to focus on providing scrutiny of government policy, reducing corruption, and delivering for all constituents not just those involved in the selectorate.

The need for reform is an open secret. Political leaders and civil society organisations have already begun to call for change. The country’s two dominant parties have looked at introducing new measures, for example increasing the number of delegates – which in principle could make vote buying unaffordable, and hence encourage candidates and voters to focus on other issues – but so far the magnitude of these modifications has been too most to fundamentally change the way that the system works.

The NDC, for example, introduced a plan to increase the number of primary voters in each constituency, but the lack of membership data created problems in the 2012 primaries, and made them revert back to smaller electoral colleges. This hints at some of the wider reforms that will be needed for the country’s primary problem to be solved.

For the parties to move forward, they will need accurate membership data so that they can identify all party supporters in each constituency, so that they can open up voting to all membership fee paying individuals. Further measures may also be valuable to stop the move to larger selectorates being abused. Only allowing party members enlisted more than 12 months prior to elections to vote in primaries may be advisable, for example, to dissuade candidates from enlisting any constituents they can find just to create an advantage in the electoral college.

These measures will not stamp out vote buying of course. Well-resourced candidates will still attempt to buy votes, just as they do in general elections when the electorate is much bigger. But it would help to prevent primaries from becoming even more expensive, and would have the benefit of making candidates accountable a larger proportion of party members, rather than to the privileged few.

Ouborr Kutando is a political-economist, and holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK.

Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading