Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ghana goes to the polls

After eight years of John Kufuor’s rule, Ghanaians go to the polls to either create a “moving forward” or cause “change” in next week’s general elections. Analysts say it is a close race which could go into a runoff.


Everywhere one goes to in Ghana these days there are political billboards with candidates’ faces smiling back at one. The most popular of these messages are either carrying the mantra “We are moving forward” or the less pungent message of “For a better Ghana”, the opposition’s signifier for change. And all across the country, opinions are polarized among citizens as many have taken sides with one of the two major parties contesting this December 7 presidential and parliamentary elections, the ruling National Patriotic Party, NPP and the opposition National Democratic Congress, NDC. Things don’t get any easier because of the immense rivalry between both parties.

In 2000, incumbent President John Kufuor defeated then Vice President John Atta-Mills of the NDC and has led the country for the last eight years after another victory in 2004. It is Atta-Mills third time carrying the flag of the NDC which was created by former president Jerry Rawlings out of his revolutionary Provisional National Defence Council, PNDC. The tricky thing about this year’s election is that Atta-Mills will be going head to head against Nana Akufo-Addo, the candidate of the ruling NPP, a man who has been chasing the presidency since 2000. Whoever wins this time will make history in Ghanaian politics. If the ruling party wins, it will be the first time in Ghana that a ruling party will succeed itself. And if the NDC wins, it will be the first time that a ruling party goes into opposition and then comes back into government. The desperation of the NDC may cause a rift in the party’s ranks if it fails to win this time around, says Alex Frempong, a governance expert and senior lecturer in the department of political science at the University of Ghana, Legon.

The NDC feels it is very close to winning back power at this point in time when many Ghanaians have had eight years of the same policies of the right-of-centre NPP. It is asking the people to vote for change for the better while the NPP is campaigning for moving the country forward. Ghana has made tremendous success in the last decade coming from the background of a very highly indebted poor country to being a destination for investments and tourism. “Our achievement is one of the bedrocks of our campaign. We want to build on it. We want to work on the teething problems and make it smoother”, says Konadu Apraku, campaign director of the Nana Akufo-Addo Organisation. Konadu says they hope to ensure free secondary education for all Ghanaian students after having introduced tuition free primary education all over the country. They also want to ensure that the national health insurance that has been introduced which presently covers about 57 percent of the entire population is extended all over the country. He feels it is a deal which the electorate cannot afford to let pass them by. But the icing on their campaign manifesto is the fact that under its watch, Ghana finally struck oil in commercial quantity last year where it hopes to earn $15 billion in the next five years. Konadu says that with the increasing investments coming into the country and the proposed oil money they hope to be able to fund all these programmes.

The opposition has a different idea though. Asiedu Nketsiah, secretary general of the NDC spoke to TELL in an interview that the people are ready for a change and all they need is to be watchful on how the election goes. “If you walk around and interview people, you’ll realize that the urge for a change and the mood for a change is in the air so much that what we need to be careful about is that nobody tampers with the peoples’ verdict when December comes”, Nketsiah says. The NDC’s hope is premised on the laughable fact that the American Democratic party has just defeated the Conservative party. The Rawlings government was closely aligned to that of Bill Clinton while the Kufuor government has been aligned to that of George W. Bush. Hence, the feeling that as the Democrats take over in America so also will the NDC win in Ghana.

Such is the growing confidence of the opposition that it is only counting on the Electoral Commission to do its job properly in order to ensure that the votes are fairly and properly counted. Its confidence might be attributed to the performance of the party in the last two elections. The party has consistently scored about 44 percent of total votes cast and maintained its hold on four (Upper West, Upper East, Northern and Volta) of the 10 regions of the country. It hopes that this time around would be better and that it would perform a little better in the strong hold of the NPP which is the five Akan-speaking regions (Ashanti, Brong Ahafo, Eastern, Central and Western) of the country and as well as the Greater Accra region.

Interestingly, Atta-Mills has lost twice, plus a runoff in 2000, in his home in the Central region. But if he will lose again this year is what analysts cannot predict. Frempong believes that the Central region holds the key to the presidential elections this year. The Central region has always voted for the winner in any election since 1969. It is more noteworthy that in Ghana there are 92 ethnic groups which can be broadly broken down into Akans and non-Akans. Anytime that any of the five Akan regions have failed to vote for the tradition which the NPP represents which dates back to the JB Danquah and Kofi Busia days, the party has lost power. Hence, the NDC might get a foot in the door if they can find a way of swinging the votes of the Central region their way this time around if Atta-Mills could somehow find a way of shedding the tag of being a puppet for Rawlings.

One other permutation of this year’s election is the possibility of it going into a runoff like it did in 2000 when the NPP came into power. The winner needs 50 percent of the votes plus one to triumph. In 2000, the third parties, that is, the smaller opposition parties got seven percent of the votes which helped to push it into a runoff. This time around, anything between five and 10 percent for the third parties will definitely push the elections into a runoff. This is very possible considering the fact that the Convention Peoples’ Party is enjoying great resurgence at the moment. The party which was founded by Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana has as its flag bearer Kwesi Nduom, a former cabinet minister under President Kufuor. A runoff might not be in the interest of the ruling party says Frempong. “It is not always good for the ruling party to allow itself get into a runoff as the opposition parties might gang up against it”, he says. But the idea of a runoff could also be disquieting for many Ghanaians. “They may vote en mass for one party to avoid going into a runoff which can be very aggressive thereby trying to keep the peace, one must not rule that out”, Frempong says.

The Electoral Commission, EC, has assured of a free and fair election. Headed by Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, the EC is one of the most respected in Africa for the way it has handled the previous elections. It is not without some fault of its own though as it was steeped in some controversy for the manner in which it handled the updating of the voters’ register recently. The register was over bloated by the fact that many under age people were allowed to register as well as people who had been previously registered. The EC laid the blame at the doorstep of the political parties who tried to cheat their way through encouraging their supporters to manipulate the register. The EC has cleaned up its house though as it has now expunged about 349, 000 names from its books. In an earlier interview with TELL, Afari-Gyan stated that the EC has in its books about 13 million registered voters for this year’s elections.

Apart from the presidential election, candidates are also vying to fill the 230 seats on offer in the Ghanaian parliament. Current figures from the last elections indicate that the ruling NPP has 128 seats, the NDC 94 seats, the CPP 3, the People’s National Convention, PNC, 4 and a single independent candidate.

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