Democracy prevails in Ghana

In early January 2009, John Atta Mills became President of Ghana, replacing John Kufour who left office after serving the maximum of two terms allowed by the Constitution. Democracy was put to the test during the elections. However, ultimately the change of power from the New Patriotic Party (NPP) to the National Democratic Congress (NDC) proceeded without trouble. International attention after the election turmoil in Kenya and Zimbabwe was a contributing factor.

[ By Susanne Giese ]

It was a tight race, with the two main parties both certain of victory. An economic dimension was added to the race by the recent discovery of oil reserves off the coast of Ghana. They are expected to generate annual revenue of three billion dollars, and this bonanza was too attractive to be left to the opposition. The deep mistrust between the NPP and the NDC found its outlet during the election campaign in aggressive verbal attacks, with the two parties accusing one another of attempted voter fraud.

However, ultimately the elections proceeded well. John Larvie is the coordinator of the Coalition of Domestic Observers (CODEO), a network of civil society organisations. He says: “If elections are to be successful, it is important that the correct legal framework exists and that the various actors involved observe the rules.” “Actors” in this case includes specifically the Electoral Commission (EC), political parties, the security forces, the media, the government, civil society and the voting public.

The nervous preelection period proved to be the hour for civil society. Throughout Ghana, there were football games, marches and demonstrations, and peace was preached in churches and mosques. Traditional chiefs and queen mothers called for peaceful conduct and fair elections.

However, long-simmering conflicts flared up in some places, despite the efforts taken. Peace fora were organised in places particularly prone to crisis. Independent agencies brought together party activists, the EC and local authorities for public debates. Political think tanks ensured that the parliamentary candidates held public discussions at the constituency level. In these situations, the political opponents generally showed respect and were even almost cordial in their dealings with one another.

In 2008, the civil society election observers of the CODEO network deployed more than 4000 electionday observers in Ghana’s 230 electoral districts. CODEO was already active months before electionday. Larvie says that the very well-trained observers had reported logistic shortages, harassment and intimidation, and thus preventing patronage, corruption, vote-buying and other undemocratic conduct. Larvie points out that CODEO’s confirmation of the official results added credibility to the EC’s figures.

There were problems with voter enrolment even though the EC has a good reputation in Ghana. The EC anticipated 800,000 new voters, but two million people wanted to register. This meant there were not enough forms which led to unpleasant situations in the electoral offices, so the registration period had to be extended by a few days.

“The people were angry,” says Larvie. “The parties suspected ballot-rigging and denounced one another as well as the EC.” The EC has since, in a “Registration cleaning Exercise”, taken 500,000 names off the register – mainly of minors, multiple registration or deceased. However, these and other problems did not dominate. On the whole, the EC’s huge experience was helpful to calm down the unrest.

The media’s ambivalent role

In Larvie’s assessment, Ghana’s media provided comprehensive information about the election process – and taught Ghanaians to observe the rules. In actual fact, along with civil society, the media was of considerable help in ensuring transparency in the election process. It published results and recommendations from the (pre-)election observations and provided a platform for the public to exchange political opinions.

Some media outlets however published information they claimed to be true without verifying it, in some cases starting disastrous rumours. For example, after a media report of stolen ballot boxes, party supporters stormed a hotel where they believed the ballot boxes to be kept, before the report proved to be false.

A private broadcaster, Joy FM, reported live from polling stations throughout the country. However, continuous coverage of voting results was a controversial issue for voters. Did Joy FM thereby ensure transparency and prevent the forgery of data? Or did the reporting instead undermine the authority of the Electoral Commission?

In any event, even days before the Electoral Commission declared the official results, journalists allowed the impression to be created that the election winner had already been determined. Meanwhile, spurred on by another private broadcaster, Radio Gold, NDC supporters set off to besiege the Electoral Commission, where an armoured personnel carrier was already stationed. However, the demonstration remained peaceful, and party officials calmed the crowds by handing out ice cream.

John Larvie commends the central government for not trying to interfere at any stage of the process, which unfortunately cannot be said of all party officials. But in such cases, he says, “civil society stepped in and made a lot of noise about incumbency abuse, and the media cooperated in publishing civil society’s findings.”

Growing tension

Due to a shortage of ballot papers at the run-off election in the rural district of Tain, voting was impossible. The EC decided to repeat voting there on 2 January.

However, the NPP called for a boycott of polling in Tain and simultaneously sought an injunction against the Electoral Commission’s decision. The whole country was on tenterhooks. The action was dismissed on 1 January. On 2 January, some 50,000 eligible voters in Tain could cast their votes in the presence of numerous security forces and domestic and international observers.

The official final result was announced on 3 January: Atta Mills had won the election to become President of the Republic of Ghana with a margin of just 40,000 votes. The NPP candidate, Nana Akufo Addo, did not officially concede defeat until 24 hours later.

Despite all the tension, the majority of Ghanaians waited quietly for the official election results, ready to accept the winner, regardless of whether or not he was the candidate for whom they had voted. This basic democratic attitude is reinforced through the repeated experience of peaceful elections. It is also reflected in the Afrobarometer, a comparative series of public attitude surveys on democracy, governance and market economy in by now 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ghanaian voters have grasped their liberties, says Larvie. “They have exercised their right to go to rallies, and then made up their mind about the qualities of their leaders and whether they are pleased or disappointed.” Ghanaians have by now voted out two governments without violence. “The parties may have wooed them with money or threats, but the Ghanaians trust the secrecy of their vote,” Larvie says.

The satisfaction of Ghanaians with their democratic institutions has also increased. In 2008, the respective figure according to Afrobarometer was 80 %. A total of 65 % of Ghanaians say that democratic elections never or only seldom lead to violence – as recently as 2005, only 46 % believed this. This is probably a fundamental answer as to why peaceful demo­cratic elections in Ghana work: the people have greater trust in the demo­cratic process. Not least, US President Barack Obama demonstrated by his visit to Ghana last summer that the country enjoys a good reputation internationally in matters of governance.

“Ghana is on the right track,” Larvie says. But the risk of going astray is still there, as was to be seen in August when by-elections took place in Akwatia. As irregularities had been proved the Supreme Court had decided to repeat parliamentary elections in six polling stations there. CODEO reported falsified ID cards as well as fake ballot papers, intimidation and heavy conflicts.

Therefore Larvie, an expert in Ghanaian election matters, is calling on the international community to continue watching the development of democracy in Ghana. Donors had initially believed that the country had made so much progress it would manage without support. However, their opinion changed after troubled elections in Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

At the elections, Ghana hosted seven international election observer groups. Larvie believes that, although smaller in numbers, they sometimes have more clout than domestic observers. The foreigners are considered to be more objective and they are assumed to follow international standards. Furthermore, “their presence adds credibility to our homemade results.”

Local government elections will take place in Ghana in 2010. President Mills moreover has announced a constitutional reform leading to changed responsibilities on a municipal level. A strong and watchful civil society is needed in the long run.

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