Yesterday citizens in Ghana flocked to the polls for the second round of elections. The first round of simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections held in Ghana on 7th December 2008 was closely fought between the major parties. The contest was largely peaceful, free and fair. Parties mobilized supporters through party rallies and local canvassing, with news coverage reflecting diverse views and perspectives. Competition in the presidential and parliamentary contests was intense, especially between the two major parties. Both sides claimed some electoral irregularities occurred, especially in the second round of the presidential contest, but the first round was peaceful. After the first round, the EU Election Observation Mission reported that the elections met all international standards. Elections were conducted in an 'open, transparent and competitive environment' respecting the right to stand for election and to vote, with widespread freedoms of assembly, expression and movement. The outcome was even more remarkable on a continent where fragile democratic transitions have often collapsed with sudden reversals.
Experiments with democracy in Africa have failed for many reasons; presidents fail to respect term limits, minor electoral irregularities in close contests (such as in Kenya) can trigger sudden tensions and violent street protests, and the existence of predominant parties (such as in mean that peaceful rotations of power from the government to opposition parties are relatively infrequent.
How did the Kenyan election a year earlier trigger such a violent outcome while, by contrast, the first round of the Ghanaian contest was widely recognized by observers at home and abroad as meeting the international standards for a democratic election? And, even more importantly, what are the broader implications of the marked contrasts between these particular contests for understanding the not-so-simple relationship between elections and democratic governance?
A half-century ago, Ghana was the first African state to achieve independence following colonial rule. In 1966 its first president and pan-African hero, Kwame Nkrumah, was deposed in a coup, heralding years of mostly-military rule. In 1981 Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings staged his second coup. The country began to move towards economic stability and democracy. In April 1992 a constitution allowing for a multi-party system was approved in a referendum, ushering in a sustained period of democracy. Since then, Ghana has experienced periodic multiparty contests which international observers have regarded as free and fair. The constitution specified that presidential elections are held using the 2nd ballot majoritarian system, while the 230 parliamentary members are elected for a four year term in single member constituencies using a first-past-the-post election system. The two largest political parties that dominate contemporary politics in Ghana, the liberal democratic New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the social democratic National Democratic Congress (NDC), have both enjoyed two consecutive terms in presidential office and majorities in parliament, the NDC from 1992-2000 and the NPP from 2000-2008. In December 2000, John Kufuor was elected as president, succeeding Jerry Rawlings in a peaceful transition of power. Re-elected in 2004, President Kufuour stepped down voluntarily four years later, observing the constitutional two-term limit.
First round contests on 7 December 2008
In the run up to December 7 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections, parties campaigned freely across the country, on policy driven issues such as social welfare and the economy and they published comprehensive manifestos. The campaign environment was lively and the parties canvassed voters door-to-door, holding a series of peaceful local rallies and town-hall meetings across Ghana, with the presidential candidates of the NPP and NDC touring the country. A series of independent polls were published in the media. Debates between the presidential candidates of the four parties with parliamentary representation were broadcast live via the major media outlets. Public and private sector broadcasting channels offered extensive news reporting about the campaign, especially coverage of the major parties and presidential candidates, and a large number of discussion programs. Newspapers provided a diverse range of views and covered all of the major events organized by the parties during the campaign, although as was the case with broadcasters, they focused their coverage on the larger political parties. There were also many paid political advertisements in the media and at times these were used to openly criticize opposing parties. The absence of any legal campaign spending limits meant that political parties were free to use unlimited resources. Both the NDC and NPP organized highly developed campaign strategies.
In the first round of the presidential contest, the governing party candidate was Nana Akufo-Addo, one of the founding members of the New Patriotic Party when multi-party democracy returned to Ghana, and an advocate of human rights. He faced the opposition candidate, Professor John Atta Mills, a social democrat heading the National Democratic Congress party, and six other minor party candidates who also threw their hat into the ring. The first round election among all contestants ended on a knife-edge; the popular vote was evenly divided between Akufo-Addo (49.1%) and Atta Mills (47.9%), with scattered support for others. As no single candidate gained an absolute majority, the outcome was decided by the second round contest between the two leading candidates. This round saw an extremely close contest where Atta Mills won a slender lead over the governing party's Akufo-Addo.
The parliamentary elections held on 7th December, held under plurality single member rules, proved equally competitive. The result saw the governing New Patriotic Party fall to 107 parliamentary seats with 49% of the popular vote. It was overtaken in a tight race by the opposition National Democratic Congress, gaining 114 seats, with a more efficient distribution of support as it won only 47% of the national popular vote. Two minor parties and four independents were also returned as members of parliament.
The European Union was among a host of institutions observing these contests, including the Carter Centre, ECOWAS, African Union, and over 4000 representatives from the Coalition of Domestic Observers (CODEO). The EU reported that the Electoral Commission who administered the contests proved impartial, professional, and independent, ensuring the transparency of the process. Electoral observers and party agents were able to observe all stages of polling, vote counting, and aggregation. There were clear legal channels for complaints and appeals challenging the results and the Commission worked to ensure conciliation and acceptance of the process among the major stakeholders. There were some minor administrative irregularities experienced on polling day during the first round, but the Electoral Commission apologized for these and sought to rectify the situation. A series of public forum, organized by the National Peace Council (NPC), brought together all major stakeholders and parties to discuss the polling process, to diffuse any discontent, and to offer recommendations for future contests.
The second round presidential contest on 28th December 2008
With the election count now underway, the outcome of the second round is currently unknown. If the second round contests are resolved in a peaceful and orderly manner, the outcome will be all the more remarkable because Ghana lacks many of the social and economic conditions which are commonly associated with stable democracies. An ethically-divided society, by languages and religions, there are estimated to be more than 100 distinct groups, including the Akan, Ewe, Mole-Dagbane, Guan, and Ga-Adangbe. Ghana is also one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average per capita GDP of $1,400. One third of the population live below $1.25 a day. Francophone West Africa is one of the poorest and most unstable regions of the world; autocracies in Mauritania, Chad, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic coexist with fragile states engaged in peace-building after protracted conflict, including Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire. Within a few days of Ghanaians going to the polls, in Guinea the death of a dictator triggered a chaotic military coup.
Yet overall the first round of the Ghanaian elections was judged by domestic and international observers to be a considerable success, another largely-orderly and peaceful contest further consolidating Ghana's successive steps towards stable democracy. In 2008, Freedom House rated Ghana 1.5 on its 7-point index of political rights and civil liberties, comparable to Greece, Israel, South Korea, and Bulgaria. We currently await the outcome of the final contest but so far the election represents a beacon of hope for democracy in a region noted by a checkered history for political stability and human rights.