The disconnect between Ghanaian parliamentarians and their constituencies

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On 7 January 1993, Ghana’s 4th Republic was inaugurated. This new dawn was greeted with enormous expectations for a flourishing democracy which had eluded the country for several years. Ghana had endured a long period of political uncertainty from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s with several coup d’états, interspersed with brief attempts at democratisation. Consequently, the optimism that occasioned the return to democracy was understandable. At last, opportunities would abound for Ghanaians to openly and freely participate in holding their elected representatives accountable.

After almost three decades of democratic experimentation, we can reflect on the progress that has – or has not – been made. Although many observers – both domestic and international – have praised Ghana’s democratic accomplishments, there are nevertheless some unfortunate drawbacks. One of these – discussed in this piece – is the disconnection between Ghanaian parliamentarians and the very voters whose interests they are supposed to represent.  Given that modern democracies rely on representative institutions, weak parliamentarian-constituency relations could shake the very foundations upon which representative democracy rests. This may even be truer for emerging democracies if citizens do not feel adequately connected to the state.

In the case of Ghana, a series of annual surveys reveal that the people’s representatives in parliament only spend little time in the constituency to appreciate and champion their concerns. When they visit too, many do not ‘listen’ to the constituents. Actual contacts between Members of Parliament (MPs) in Ghana and the ordinary voter have also severed over the years. For more than ten years (between 2002 and 2013) an average of 85.8 per cent Ghanaians ‘never’ had any ‘contacts’ with their representatives in Parliament.

This gap, unfortunately, represents a low point for a democracy that is deemed to be the hope of the African continent. Because parliamentarians are critical in connecting citizens and the state, many countries consciously invest in institutions that yield closer legislator-voter relations. Ghana is no exception to this. It settled for the simple-plurality electoral system in 1992 so that a stronger bond of periodic accountability would exist between voters and their MPs. But despite this, many challenges remain.

Ghana’s electoral system and MP-constituents relations

To ensure that individual voters, not political parties, become the major voice in the election of MPs in Ghana, the country settled for the Simple Plurality electoral system.

Under this system, a closer and constant interface between legislators and the people they represent is envisaged. Due to Ghana’s turbulent political past, the country resolved to go for this institutional arrangement to not only promote closer linkage between MPs and their constituents but also to empower voters to directly reward or punish their representatives for their stewardship.

But despite these guarantees, Ghanaian MPs and their constituents are still disconnected. How do we explain this disconnection? In my article published in The Journal of Legislative Studies, I argue that the answer lies in the way that the two main political parties in the country; the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and National Democratic Congress (NDC) select parliamentary candidates for general elections.

NPP/NDC parliamentary primaries and legislators’ behaviour

Grassroots competitions for selecting parliamentary candidates for general elections were alien to both the NDC and NPP before the 2000s. Although a certain degree of local party involvement in this process was allowed, the “handpicking” of candidates by national party figures remained commonplace. Owing to transparency concerns, both parties institutionalized internal primaries. But this supposedly democratic feat, I argue, has had a counterproductive effect: it focuses the attention of parliamentarians on their party delegates to the neglect of the constituency voter.

To compete in internal party primaries, one must follow three steps. First, application papers must be filed with the local party constituency executives. This is followed by passing a vetting by regional and national committees. The last lap is to campaign for the support of party delegates. The small size of the delegates is, however, a recipe for patronage. Because it is so small – usually comprising of a few hundred delegates – aspirants are easily able to buy off their votes and loyalty with material benefits. In recent cases, some aspirants have gone as far as distributing cars to win these primaries.  

The concentration on party delegates is understandable for two basic reasons. First, party primaries in Ghana are policy-free. So, the main criteria for the selection of parliamentary candidates is the ability to award personalized, material benefits like cash, television sets, cookers among others. Becoming an MP therefore becomes the preserve of the highest bidder. The second reason is the huge number of safe seats/constituencies in the country. Because more than 60 per cent of parliamentary seats in Ghana are uncompetitive for either the NDC or the NPP, winning internal primaries means a free ticket to parliament.

This positions intraparty primaries, not general elections, as the main contest that determines who goes to the next parliament. The incentive for parliamentarians to serve their constituents in general to be re-elected is therefore diminished. This is due to the limited role they play in the MP’s access to the parliamentary office. In my interviews with the MPs on their constituency engagements, it was evident that ‘delegates’, ‘party people’, ‘foot soldiers’, ‘cadres’, ‘grassroots’ and ‘loyal members’ were the main focus of their constituency activities. This (over)-concentration on party delegates for electoral purposes ends up straining the MP’s relations with the constituency.

The way forward

Making parliamentarians responsive to their constituents may have little to do with electoral system engineering in contexts dominated by patronage and safe seats. Party-level explanations are more likely to hold the key to our understanding of legislators’ behaviour. I argue that the small number of the delegates for the NPP/NDC is what provides the incentive for parliamentarians to award personalized benefits as a strategy in intraparty primaries. This is then feasible because in many new democracies such as Ghana, no laws regulate how parties choose their candidates.

This is problematic because in many instances it is intraparty selection mechanisms that determine who wins and hence the dynamics of political representation. Making primary level candidate selection inclusive is therefore crucial. While restricting the numbers may provide a reason for MPs to concentrate on small groups of delegates, a bigger size would discourage the deployment of clientelistic and vote-buying strategies.

Given that MPs’ limited campaign budgets are likely to be insufficient for issuing personalized handouts to a larger number of delegates, the expectation is that programmatic appeals that benefit the entire constituency would become the focus of internal party competitions. In other words, when intraparty candidate selection mechanisms become adequately inclusive [e.g. comprising all party members or even the entire constituency voters], policy proposals will begin to take centre stage. As a result, the benchmark for electing MPs will shift from the ability to issue out personalized benefits to the ability to roll out and implement policies that have constituency-wide effects.

Parliamentarians seeking re-election would therefore have an incentive to build closer, stronger relationships with voters and not only satisfy small internal party oligarchies. And that, in turn, would strengthen the country’s impressive, but fledgling, democracy.

Martin Acheampong is a doctoral fellow in political science at the University of Bamberg.

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