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On a Knife Edge: Ghana's Close Election to Test its Peace and Democracy

Through the campaign, rhetoric has got stronger and accusations of fraud and violence have increased. With the result be too close to call, how will things pan out?
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Incumbent president and NDC candidate John Mahama at an event in Accra, Ghana. Photograph by European External Action Service.

Accra, Ghana:

After power was peacefully handed over following Ghana’s agonisingly close presidential run-off in 2008, many praised the nation’s culture of peace and democracy. But for a country that prides itself on being a beacon of stability in West Africa, the prospect of violence was far closer than most Ghanaians would care to admit.

That presidential election was won by a wafer-thin margin of around 40,000 votes in the second-round run-off, and the elections taking place tomorrow, on December 7, promise to be just as closely fought. The final campaign rallies were held yesterday in which the incumbent John Mahama of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), and his main rival Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), both reiterated their promises and urged voters to help them over the finish line.

NDC vs. NPP

Since the re-emergence of Ghana’s electoral democracy in 1992, the country has developed a complicated political culture, largely, but not solely, based on ethnicity. Each party has its ethnic heartlands, but civil servants, teachers and doctors – educated ‘big men’ – who go back from cities to their villages, are often important in influencing people’s votes. Policy, and not just character assassination, has also played an increasingly significant role in this election.

Ultimately, the Ghanaian elections will be decided by three or four swing regions. The heartlands of the ruling NDC are across northern Ghana and in the Volta Region, whilst the opposition NPP holds sway in the Ashanti and Eastern regions. It is the regions of Greater Accra, Brong-Ahafo and Western Region that are likely to decide the result.

The left-leaning NDC, founded by military-ruler-turned-elected-president Jerry Rawlings in 1992, drew on the tradition of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first leader, and his support base of ‘veranda boys’, trade unionists and cocoa farmers. On the other hand, the slightly more right-leaning NPP was influenced by the legacy of early Ghanaian politicians such as JB Danquah and Kofi Busia who drew support from intellectuals and professionals, the early Ghanaian elite.

In the last two decades, the NDC and NPP have become institutionalised, gradually edging out the support of other smaller parties, and helped develop a noisy and ragged but functioning electoral democracy, which has seen five consecutive free and fair elections, and two transitions of power.

Mills’ death changes the race

When president and leader of the ruling NDC, John Atta Mills, died unexpectedly of throat cancer in July this year, the country went into a period of mourning, while the race for the presidency swung wide open.

Despite booming economic growth and the arrival of oil revenue to Ghana’s budget, Mills’ party was dogged by infighting and allegations of corruption. With his academic background, the president also seemed to struggle to take a grip of the hurly burly of Ghanaian political life, and his frequent unexplained long absences (subsequently understood to be due to his long-running illness) further hamstrung the leadership and direction of the party and government. It felt like the odds were slowly moving in favour of the NPP and Akufo-Addo.

In 2008, Akufo-Addo had won the first round presidential elections but fell short of the majority needed for outright victory, and was barely edged out in the second round. A well-organised NPP campaign strategy and a pioneering social media drive seemed to be giving him the edge in 2012. The policy promise of free secondary education for all (though un-costed and possibly unaffordable) seem to wrong-foot the NDC and be garnering grassroots support.

The death of President Mills seemed to change the picture. The competent but slightly ineffectual leader who struggled to get things done suddenly became a ‘man of God’ who had been honest hardworking, and had dedicated his life to his country. Vice-President John Mahama was sworn in as Mills’ successor, and his dignified mourning during the country’s grieving period, and affable manner afterwards, seemed to warm people towards him.

On the George W. Bush test of which candidate you would rather have a beer with, Akufo-Addo would lose every time. Largely educated in England – including, for a time, at Oxford University and London’s Inner Temple – Akufo-Addo’s upper class drawl sounds like it would win more admirers in the UK’s House of Lords than the villages in Northern Ghana. Perceived as aloof, rumours about his womanising and drug use (doubtless encouraged by NDC voices) have refused to go away. Furthermore, some believe that many of Akufo-Addo’s backers from the business community have switched sides, and Mahama’s business connections and prominent family have given him further financial muscle.

Shifting back to neck and neck

But in recent months, the advantages the NDC seemed to claw back have slowly ebbed away. Mahama has little to show for his four months in office, and has seemed almost over-whelmed by the office of president. And during the recent televised presidential debates, he seemed flat and uninspiring.

Ghanaians also seem to have short political memories – Mahama’s presidential demeanour in his handling of the ‘Melcom disaster’ in which 14 people died seem to have been forgotten, and the ‘sympathy’ vote predicted to help the NDC following Mills’ death seems to have evaporated. Former president Jerry Rawlings who fell out with Mills, moved back on side with John Mahama, but is seen to have drifted away again since, despite recent reassurances he supports him.

All signs then point towards the race being neck and neck. Opinion polls in Ghana have called the result both ways, with different surveys predicting a first-round 52% victory for the NDC and for the NPP (although opinion polls are often partisan and unreliable).

The struggle to keep it free and fair

Given the likely closeness of the election, the Electoral Commission (EC) will have a huge role to play. In fact, over the past two decades, the EC has central to the success of Ghana’s democracy.

Proving himself to be independent and impartial, the EC’s chairman Kwadwo Afari-Gyan has managed to shed the label he was first given when appointed in 1992 of ‘NDC party man’. Eloquent, eccentric and autonomous, he has not been afraid to take on either party at their own game, using Ghana’s loud and sometimes discordant press to take on misinformation and assert the EC’s independence. Even in the heat of an election, Afari-Gyan drives or walks to work without any protection – a brave thing to do for a man who speaks the truth to power so often.

But below the impressive figure of Afari-Gyan, it is not clear how well the EC functions as an organisation. The perception amongst many is that in 2008 they got lucky, and it was only key interventions from a few crucial individuals that saved the day.

This year, Biometric Voter Registration has taken place for the first time in the hope it would clear away the ‘ghosts’ from Ghana’s bloated register, and reduce opportunities of electoral fraud. This is a welcome move although the process remains imperfect and in need of ironing out in subsequent elections.

Unfortunately, however, biometric technology cannot prevent other fraudulent attempts to manipulate the outcome of the election on voting day itself. In terms of these strategies, the NDC is seen to have stronger and more sophisticated methods of buying off party agents, spoiling ballots and duplicating votes. In Ghana, manipulating results is not just a case of stuffing ballot boxes, and ruses for wrangling votes become more and more sophisticated each election. In 2008, rumours were that the latest scam was for officials counting ballot papers to have ink or dye concealed in their hair. When they came across votes for the ‘wrong’ candidates, they would pensively scratch their head and spoil the paper with their inked-up finger. This time rumours abound of people being told to surreptitiously take photos of their marked ballot papers with a mobile phone to bring as proof for party agents, who will pay them for their vote.

Violent undertones

Each party also has their ‘macho men’ – typically unemployed youths bought with money or other promises to cause trouble. They may be deployed to intimidate voters, disrupt polling, or drive around on motorbikes stealing ballot boxes as required. And in recent days, the atmosphere has heated up. Both parties have pointed out locations where they claim the other has been stockpiling arms, cutlasses and other weapons – a small arms race seems to be developing, with both sides preparing themselves for the worst though with neither wanting to be seen to initiate the unrest.

With the race closely tied, it looks unlikely that either will snatch the required 51% to win in the first round. The NDC may edge ahead, but it seems likely both parties will probably receive around 48-49% with smaller parties and independents taking the rest.

This could provide a risk to peace and security as the parties will be given three more weeks to campaign but also possibly prepare to dispute the outcome of the vote if need be. Both parties seem confident of victory, and whoever loses will only accept defeat grudgingly.

Worryingly, the mask of peace is starting to slip, and party leaders’ rhetoric has shifted in recent days. Akufo-Addo’s cry of “all die be die” is echoing amongst his supporters. One NPP member made a distinction between Jesus’ peace (‘turn the other cheek’) and Moses’ (‘an eye for an eye’). Akufo-Addo recently claimed he would not be the first to initiate violence, but if someone else did, presumably Moses’ law would come into play.

Small parties hold the sway

If neither candidate gets the required 51%, the run-off between the top two will part on December 28. The alignment of the 2-3% of the votes which the smaller parties and independents generally take will therefore be crucial. Traditionally, these have aligned with the opposition, but there are signs that this time the NDC has brought them on side.

A good litmus test of Ghanaian political attitudes is the ‘free t-shirt index’ – all candidates give out free t-shirts wooing would-be voters and a look at which t-shirt is most popular and in which regions can be telling. Regarding the smaller parties this election, one commentator observed: “They are all wearing two t-shirts”. The one on top showing their party’s logo, the one beneath reading ‘NDC’.

Should it go to a run off, the NDC seems likely to edge it.

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