The 2016 Presidential Elections: The True Test of Ghana’s Democracy?

By George Boateng

Ghana’s 2016 presidential election is scheduled for December 7, 2016. Many see this election as unique in Ghana’s recent history and vital to the country’s fledgling democracy.

In a recent poll by the Center for Democratic Development, it was revealed that many citizens believe there may be flashes of violence after the December elections results is announced, but the U.S. embassy  in Accra, which recently issued a condemnation of political violence, has stated it believes in Ghana’s tradition of peaceful and democratic elections and is confident the election will be business as usual. Will this election be a referendum on Ghana’s electoral progress?

A Beacon of Democracy?

Ghana has often been presented as a beacon of democracy in Africa, with every U.S. president visiting Ghana since the establishment of the country’s 4th Republic in 1993. Since then, Ghana’s democracy has survived five widely accepted and credible elections. Since the 1992 elections, numerous logistical and procedural reforms have been made to the way elections are conducted in Ghana. These have ranged from a shift away from opaque ballot boxes to using transparent ones, to the introduction of security seals on ballot boxes, the use of photo identification cards, and most recently, the use of a biometric register and biometric voter verification devices on election day.

There have been many occasions where Ghana’s electoral process has been put to test, notably the general elections of 2000, 2008, and, most importantly, 2012. The 2000 elections marked a turning point in Ghana’s democracy, as JJ Rawlings of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) handed over power after two terms in office to the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) led by John Agyekum Kufuor after a fiercely contested election. Rawlings had been President for 19 years, including 8 years as elected president after he successfully reestablished multi-party rule and formed the 4th Republic. In 2008, the then-ruling NPP lost power to the NDC after three rounds of elections, runoffs, and reruns that were contentious but widely accepted. John Evans Atta Mills of the NDC took over the reins of power, but his first term in office was cut short after his untimely death barely five months before the 2012 general election. His then-Vice President John Dramani Mahama was sworn in and eventually won the elections that same year, defeating NPP candidate Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo who had lost to Mills in 2008. The NPP and their candidate rejected the results and brought their case to the Supreme Court to challenge the outcome of the election. This was unprecedented in the history of the country. Dubbed “the 2012 election petition,” the court dispute dragged on for several months. On August 29, 2013, the judges ruled 5 – 4 in favor of the elected president in a landmark decision. The NPP and Akufo Addo disagreed with the judgement but accepted the verdict.

The 2016 Election

The upcoming 2016 general election is unique in many ways.

First, there is a new Electoral Commissioner, Charlotte Osei (the first-ever female commissioner), who has been in office for a year. Her predecessor’s term was widely touted as successful, despite the 2012 electoral dispute, as he presided over 5 elections. Osei has seen her short term in office plagued with a litany of court disputes and controversy, most of which she has lost. Most prominent among these controversies was the disqualification of 13 of the 17 presidential aspirants. As it stands now, 3 of the disqualified aspirants have been reinstated to contest the elections after a Supreme Court verdict allowed them to rectify errors on their nomination forms. Some sections of the populace, including the NPP, see the new Electoral Commission boss as a direct contradiction to her predecessor and have little confidence in her ability to deliver, with some calling for her resignation ahead of the elections. Others, especially the ruling party, have praised her leadership skills so far in her tenure, highlighting her diligence and commitment to the rule of law as far as electoral reforms go, which will be crucial to the sanctity of the upcoming elections.

Second, the NDC has governed the country for 8 years (two terms). The pattern in the 4th Republic has been that after 8 years, governments are voted out, as happened in the 2000 and 2008 presidential elections. On the other hand, this is the end of President Mahama’s first term in office, as he only served the last 5 months of his predecessor’s term after his death. This election also appears to be the last grasp at the presidency by Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo, the main opposition leader, after defeats in the 2008 and 2012 general elections and as age is catching up with him (he is 72).

Looking Ahead

The numerous peace crusades that precede any election in Ghana are in top gear. Obviously, the Ghanaian electorate is not blind to the electoral violence that has plagued other African countries, including those which had held relatively peaceful elections. The violence that erupted in Kenya after the 2007 electoral dispute, as well as the violence in Ghana’s neighbor during the Côte d’Ivoire election crisis in 2010, stand out. These campaigns for a peaceful election are not new, and while some have deemed them needless, in the past they have had an impact on the peace and stability of the country before, during, and after elections.

The many dimensions of the upcoming election will be a test for Ghana’s democracy, but one it is capable of surmounting. The voters are eagerly waiting to see how it pans out, with the international community’s eyes fixed on Ghana. Lessons must be learnt from the 2012 election dispute, especially after the NPP affirmed they will not seek redress in court after the upcoming election. The peace campaigns are nothing new and most voters are confident the elections will be peaceful. The 2016 election may be unique and pivotal, but strong institutions such as the Electoral Commission of Ghana, the Ghanaian Judicial Service, and the security forces will be up to the task, and the oversight duties of civil society and the media will be vital.

At the end of the day, it may be a precarious moment for one of Africa’s finest democracies. But I am adamant that come December 7, democracy will be the winner.

Originally posted on the Wilson Center Africa Program Blog

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