A late surge in campaigning has improved the opposition's chances of victory as the economy stutters
A succession of bad elections this year in Africa – in Uganda, Gabon and Zambia – make the 7 December presidential and parliamentary elections in Ghana an important political marker for the region. In one of Africa's longest-established multi-party systems, where the electoral commission enjoys relatively high levels of trust, another set of successful elections in Ghana will send a positive signal.
A messy post-election dispute could raise tension in a country hit by deepening economic woes. Ghana has benefited from its reputation as a beacon of political stability, strengthening institutions and relatively effective economic management. A massive boost in public sector salaries increased the budget deficit just as falling commodity export revenues put further pressure on state finances. The recurrent nationwide power cuts have also stifled economic activity, further slowing growth as companies started cutting jobs (AC Vol 57 No 12, Budget battles as election race heats up & Vol 57 No 18, The debt merry-go-round).
Although the immediate economic problems are easing, much discontent remains, boosting the opposition's chances of victory. The election campaign has been under way, informally, since the beginning of the year. It has taken off seriously in the past month or so, with tens of thousands of political placards going up in towns and villages and the influential private radio stations broadcasting hours of debate among partisan rivals.
Both main parties are confident of victory. Although their strategists back up these claims with findings from private opinion surveys, there is much scepticism about the evidence, especially after spectacular failures of opinion polling in Britain's referendum on the European Union and last month's presidential election in the United States.
However, three new opinion polls on the Ghana elections have emerged this month, all of which reinforce the view that it will be another extremely close election. Two, one from the University of Legon and the other from the Center for Democratic Development (CDD), point to victory for the opposition New Patriotic Party and its presidential candidate, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. Both those polls also found that over 10% of the electorate was yet to make a final decision.
The other poll, from veteran election analyst Ben Ephson, predicts a win by less than one percentage point for President John Dramani Mahama. Ephson argues that the number of undecided electors has reduced sharply in recent weeks.
By far the most comprehensive survey was the CDD's report under the tutelage of Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi. He is also a director of Afrobarometer, which produces some of the most reliable research on attitudes and opinions on the continent.
For political strategists, some of the most important findings in the CDD survey of electors' attitudes were set out in a confidential section of the report which has been circulating among diplomats and international organisations. Its October survey gives a clear advantage to the opposition.
Although 18% of interviewees strongly liked President Mahama, 20% strongly disliked him; 29% strongly liked the NPP's Akufo-Addo and 11% strongly disliked him. Attitudes towards the parties were divided in a similar ratio: 17% strongly liked the governing National Democratic Congress (NDC), 20% strongly disliked it; 30% strongly liked the NPP, 10% strongly disliked it.
The data released by the CDD at public meetings identifies the main political issues as well as attitudes to the Electoral Commission of Ghana, the judicial system, to parties trying to buy votes and to the risk of violence. The first round of surveys was done in July, the second in October; there is a strong correlation between the two sets. For example, the five most important issues for electors remained constant: employment; electricity; management of the economy; education; and roads and infrastructure. The widespread view is that economic conditions have deteriorated sharply over the past five years.
Although the NDC government acknowledges current economic pressures, which it blames on crashing oil and gas prices, it insists it is restructuring and diversifying the economy. With current debt levels of well over 60% of gross domestic product, the government has brought in two expensive new floating power stations, accelerated work on a gas processing plant and commissioned several ambitious new road projects. Its campaign is based on claims to have launched a massive programme of house and road building.
Public criticism of the government's economic management has ebbed a little in recent months, partly because there are fewer power cuts and ministers have ramped up state spending, using a series of new loans. Concern about corruption in government and business is widespread, though. The CDD survey found that 60% of interviewees see the NDC as 'somewhat corrupt' and 43% think the same of the NPP.
That may just reflect political realities: that the NDC has controlled the Treasury and awarded contracts for the past eight years, and so has had more opportunity to be corrupt. Certainly, the NPP has spared no effort in painting Mahama's presidency as the 'most rapacious' in Ghana's history, accusing it of using state funds to buy votes.
Unquestionably, the NDC government is using the advantages of incumbency to the maximum. Members of parliament of all parties face demands for largesse from a hard-pressed electorate but the NPP's coffers are far more limited that its NDC rivals'.
NPP candidate Akufo-Addo insists that this time, the elections will be about voter sentiment, not which party parcels out more cash. In fact, all parties have been distributing gifts in cash and in kind to the electorate, especially to traditional rulers who strongly influence allegiances in the countryside.
Earlier this month, Mahama proudly inaugurated a flyover at Nkrumah Circle in central Accra which is illuminated by powerful floodlights at night to reinforce the message that his government is improving roads and transport. Locals joke that when they suffer power cuts, their children can walk down to Nkrumah Circle to do their school homework under the floodlights. This week, he is to open the first phase of a US$170 million road project in Central Region, a target region for both leading parties.
The surveys showed deep reservations about the conduct of politicians of all stripes. At least 54% thought that some politicians were likely to resort to violence during the elections; 62% said that peaceful elections were more important than ensuring they were entirely free and fair. Although both the NPP and NDC have their party footsoldiers, 66% of interviewees linked the activities of the party-affiliated militias such as the Azorka Boys, Bolga Bull Dogs and Kandahar Boys to the NDC and 18% to the NPP. There are worries about these groups going on the rampage should their favoured candidate lose the election. All the party leaders are under pressure to issue stronger and more unequivocal condemnations of political violence.
Although few politicians reckon the kind of murderous clashes that exploded in Kenya after claims of vote-rigging in 2007 would be repeated in a messy election dispute in Ghana, they admit that partisan and regional tensions have risen sharply over the past year. Concerns focus on Greater Accra, Central and Western, where competition between the NDC and NPP is fiercest.
Over the past two decades of elections, politicians say the final results have been decided by those three regions whose allegiance shifts between the two main parties. In previous election campaigns, those regions have swung behind the winning party. The other regions – Volta and the three northern regions – reliably fall in behind the NDC; and Ashanti and Eastern have always given the NPP majority support.
That has allowed the NDC and NPP to rely on core support of about 40% of votes for each party, based on family, regional and business ties. The final 20% of votes is shared out between the smaller parties and voters who make up their minds at the last minute. It is clear that there remains substantial dissatisfaction with economic conditions, some of which will doubtless translate into more votes for the NPP. Other electors said that despite the rough economy, they worried that voting for the NPP would mean a period of disruption while the government's policies and projects were replaced with the pet projects of the new party in power.
One of the most important factors evident from the run up to the election is the likelihood of a high turnout. Some 96% of electors interviewed by the CDD said they had registered to vote by October – that's 3% higher than those surveyed in July – and reflects the rising interest in the vote in recent weeks. A similar proportion said they were well informed about the election issues and voting procedures and were highly likely to cast their votes. That suggests a substantial increase of perhaps 10% in turnout, partly due to public enthusiasm but also to better organisation and a focus by both parties on pushing up the turnout on 7 December.
Voting in an economic storm
This will be the last top-level political contest to include both President John Dramani Mahama of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and his main challenger, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo of the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP). The loser is likely to retire from national politics and the winner will face the demanding task of consolidating authority following a tough campaign set against the background of slowing growth, and rising inflation and unemployment.
With a record level of registered electors, queues are set to start early outside the country's 29,000 polling stations for the presidential and parliamentary elections on 7 December.
The other main presidential candidates are: Ivor Kobina Greenstreet, Convention People's Party; Edward Nasigri Mahama, People's National Convention; Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings (wife of former head of state Jerry John Rawlings), National Democratic Party; and Paa Kwesi Nduom, Progressive People's Party. Traditionally, the smaller parties have taken about 2% of the national vote.
If the leading presidential candidate fails to get more than 50% of the vote, there will be a run-off four weeks later. Some 800 million Ghana cedis (US$188 million) has been allocated to run the elections. After months of heated debate about the need for a new electoral register and arguments over extra names on the existing one, the political parties agreed on a revised and audited list. Tens of thousands of names were removed by court order after parties submitted complaints.
The Chairwoman of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, tough-minded lawyer Charlotte Osei, has faced down successive controversies since she took over the post a year ago. The first set of criticisms was over opposition calls for a new register. That was eventually resolved despite residual grumbles. The second set of arguments was over her decision to disqualify 13 presidential candidates whose registration documents contained errors.
Despite pressure from civic activists and opposition parties, Osei held her line. It seems she wanted to establish a precedent of sticking to the letter of the law on the qualification issue. For several days after polling day, Osei will be at the centre of the country's politics, which will test levels of trust in her new team and in the biometric technology used to verify registered electors.
Using data from its petition against the 2012 election results at the Supreme Court, the NPP has assembled a formidable database of voting trends in the constituencies and local government areas on which it has based its campaign. Strapped for cash, it has tried to make the maximum impact with its targeted campaigning. Flanked by his running mate Mahamudu Bawumia and former Trade Minister Alan Kyerematen, Akufo-Addo has focused on the battleground constituencies.
With deeper pockets, the NDC has been able to pay for a longer-term poster advertising campaign in the towns and cities, as well as on private and state radio and television. To some extent, the parties have swapped the positions they held in 2008: then, the NPP had the money and resources to run an advertising-led campaign and preferred the big set-piece rallies.
Yet then, the NDC candidate John Atta Mills put all his energy into smaller constituency meetings, which won the day. This time, the NPP has thrown its energy into the intense constituency-based campaign, while the NDC hopes to benefit from Mahama launching big-ticket infrastructure projects.
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