Six lessons from Ghana’s 2012 elections

Here's on lesson from Ghana's 2012 election: Not only is Akufo-Addo the Ghanaian Mitt Romney, but the NPP are the Republicans of Ghana

Vote counting in Ghana's 2012 elections. Image by PapJeff via Flickr cc.

Ghana held its sixth consecutive elections since its democratic transition in 1992 this past weekend and once again has earned its reputation as a stable and thriving democracy, in spite of predictable cries of fraud by the losers, the New Patriotic Party (NPP). As I predicted here before the elections, Ghanaians elected the incumbent president John Dramani Mahama in a close vote and his party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) expanded its majority in parliament. Mahama, who took over as president in June when then-President John Ata Mills died, faced the NPP’s veteran leader Nana Akufo-Addo in Friday’s polls. Mahama’s “one-touch” victory–meaning a second round run-off election was avoided–was not unexpected, since he led Akufo-Addo in independent polls before the vote. Nonetheless, there were surprises, such as the defeat of several prominent parliamentarians and the record number of women elected to the legislative body (29 out of 275 seats). As Mahama sets up his transition team and the NPP threatens to challenge the results in court, here are six lessons from Ghana’s sixth elections:

1. Not only is Akufo-Addo the Ghanaian Mitt Romney, but the NPP are the Republicans of Ghana. Like their ideological cousins in the United States, with whom they share the symbol of the elephant, the NPP was so confident of victory that they were totally unprepared for defeat. No NPP representatives attended Sunday’s press conference at which Dr. Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, Chairman of Ghana’s Electoral Commission, announced the official results and the party is claiming electoral fraud, as they have every time they have lost an election since 1992. Yet, their support base is limited mostly to the Asante and a few related Akan ethnic groups, as evidenced by the fact they won only two of Ghana’s ten regions, and every one of its presidential candidates has come from these two regions. The ruling NDC is a national party, drawing support from all of Ghana’s major ethnic groups, and each of its three elected presidents has hailed from a different ethnic group and region of the country. Both the NPP and the Republicans faced a reality check in their back-to-back electoral loses.

2. The NDC can win elections without the help of its founding father, former President J.J. Rawlings. This is the first election in which the charismatic and popular Rawlings, who ruled Ghana for almost two decades before handing over power in 2000, did not actively campaign for his party’s candidate. In fact, his wife, former first lady Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, attempted to run for president on the ticket of the recently formed breakaway National Democratic Party, but her nominating papers were rejected by the Electoral Commission in October. Rawlings had supported his wife’s efforts, repeatedly expressing disappointment with the Mills-Mahama administration, then was absent from the NDC campaign trail. While Rawlings’ participation in NDC rallies probably would have added to Mahama’s margin of victory, the party won without his support.

3. The Nkrumah and Convention People’s Party (CPP) name brands are virtually irrelevant today. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s anti-colonial leader and first president, undoubtedly is a hero to Ghanaians, but his glamorous daughter, Samia Nkrumah, failed to win re-election after one term in parliament and the present-day incarnation of the party he founded, the CPP, had its worst showing in a Ghanaian election, earning less than 1% of the vote. Moreover, the other presidential candidates (there were a total of eight) and small parties that claimed the Nkrumahist legacy all performed as poorly in the elections. The reason is most Ghanaians who identify with the Nkrumahist tradition vote NDC, and indeed Mahama proudly proclaims himself a Nkrumahist as did former president Mills. Despite the plethora of candidates and parties, no credible third parties exist, as Ghana has become a two-party democracy.

4. Ghanaians are strategic, informed citizens who voted “skirt and blouse.” In numerous constituencies across the country, the results were mixed, with one party securing the parliamentary seat and the other winning the presidential race. While the national map suggests an irrefutable NPP victory in the center of the country, namely in the Ashanti and Eastern regions, surrounded by the eight regions which voted NDC, a closer examination reveals some constituencies elected an NPP parliamentarian while giving the presidential vote to the NDC or vice versa. Local dynamics, such as the popularity of a particular candidate or generational conflicts over party primary results, led to these mixed results.

5. Despite the aforementioned pre-election polls, many so-called experts wrongly predicted an NPP victory. At an academic conference at a prominent midwestern university last month, for example, a political scientist bragged about her recent “de-briefing” of the new US ambassador to Ghana, confidently informing the diplomat that the NPP certainly would prevail in the elections based on insights from a Ghanaian academic. Yet, based in their university departments and think tanks in Ghana’s capital of Accra, as well as at European and American campuses, many of these political scientists often are clueless about “facts on the ground.” Surrounded by like-minded elites, it is not surprising Ghanaian democracy “experts” falsely think all Ghanaians will vote like them, but out in the countryside the story was different. Rural voters have witnessed practical, significant improvements in their lives over the past four years, ranging from newly-built school blocks to recently inaugurated electricity. These voters form the majority of the Ghanaian electorate and they voted solidly NDC.

6. Despite some glitches, Ghana remains a model democracy, not just for Africa but the world. Ghanaians may have to endure the NPP’s petty challenge to the results in the courts (doomed to failure as the Election Commission has won every case brought against it since 1992), but the elections were praised as free, fair, and well-run by local and foreign observers.  Minor problems which arose, such as delayed starts at some polling stations, were quickly remedied by extending voting on Saturday, and the final results were declared about 24 hours later. Moreover, voter turnout was an impressive 80 percent. Contrast this efficiency and enthusiasm with American elections that are plagued by apathy, widely divergent registration and eligibility rules, and painfully slow vote counting particularly in the always inept battleground state of Florida. Who could forget Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe famous offer to send election observers to the US after the controversial 2000 Bush-Gore elections?

In the coming weeks and months, as the NPP surely abandons its fruitless challenge to the results and jockeying for leading the party in the 2012 elections commences, additional lessons will emerge, but the significance of this weekend’s elections for Ghana and the rest of Africa is immediately clear. At yesterday’s NDC victory rally, President Mahama pointed out that an entire generation of Ghanaians has grown up knowing no other system but democracy. And many of these young Ghanaians texted local vote counts to radio stations, followed the release of provisional results on the internet, and tweeted their reactions. In short, democracy is working in Ghana, despite the incredible challenges it faces like all underdeveloped nations in this capitalist world.

Finally, I have to comment on the blackout on Ghanaian elections in US media (most notably absent from television, including cable news): While Ghana’s elections did not make headlines–as they should, for some of the reasons outlined above–or barely even a mention, as they say “no news is good news.” It seems some American mainstream media only report on African elections when they see “tribal violence,” massive rigging, or power-sharing deals.

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