Ghana's presidential and legislative elections set for 7 and 28 December 2012 respectively, will be extremely close and come at a significant time given the region's instability.
The opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) has again selected Nana Akufo Addo as its presidential candidate and aim to regain power after its 2008 defeat. Akufo Addo was defeated by less than 1% of the vote in the final run-off - just 40,500 votes. The ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) candidate, President John Mahama, is campaigning to convince voters that he and his party are fit to continue in office.
The credibility of the process will be key. Nana Konadu Agyemang Rawlings, the wife of the controversial and outspoken former president, Jerry John Rawlings, has been barred on technical grounds from running in the presidential election. Although she never really stood a serious chance of winning significant votes, this has focused attention on the impartiality of the Electoral Committee, whose perceived independence will be essential if the result of this expected tight election is to be peaceful. We have seen in other elections in Africa in recent years how partisan electoral commissions have been triggers for protest and violence.
The management of the economy has been the main battleground on which the candidates have fought. Mahama promises to improve living standards, tackle inflation and boost infrastructure development. Corruption scandals have hurt the ruling NDC's reputation, but the NPP's record in office was also far from clean. Both parties know that by the time of the next election in 2016, a projected oil and gas production boom will favour the then incumbent.
Hot issues at the debates
There have been two feisty presidential public debates (and a vice-presidential debate) during the electoral campaign. There was no clear winner in the first presidential debate, partly because it lasted over five hours and even for Ghanaian audiences with stamina for long discussions, the key messages were diluted. The economy and education were the main issues discussed. President Mahama reiterated pledges made in his party manifesto, such as to target real GDP growth of over 8% a year and lowering the fiscal deficit to 5% of GDP (from an estimated 6.5% in 2012).
Much shorter, lasting three hours, the second presidential debate covered a range of issues, including corruption and foreign policy. Mr Akuffo-Addo highlighted the GH¢52m (US$27.4m) Woyome scandal, which engulfed the government in early 2012, as an example of the administration's cronyism, and alluded to the lack of corruption allegations against himself.
On foreign policy, the government's approach to the situation in Côte d'Ivoire featured prominently in the debate. Mr Akuffo-Addo claimed that Mr Mahama had damaged Ghana by allowing Ivorian dissidents to operate from bases within Ghana. Mahama replied that he enjoyed excellent relations with the Ivorian government.
The NPP and Mr Akuffo-Addo were seen as the winners of the second debate, especially on the corruption issue. If Akuffo-Addo wins the upcoming election, it is argued that the relationship with Ivoirian President Ouatarra would improve, as bilateral relations still suffer from the perception in Abidjan that the NDC favoured President Gbagbo during the 2011 Ivoirian post-election crisis. In the context of an inward looking Nigeria, if Ghana can improve its relations with Côte d'Ivoire, and in partnership with Senegal, regional integration in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) could be quickened.
A third party, the Convention People's Party (CPP), did well in the presidential debates and may increase its influence, especially as a victory is not likely during the first round of voting on 7 December. Its leader, Abu Sakara, could be in the position of kingmaker if the NDC and the NPP have to compete for votes from CPP supporters in the second round. He has criticised both parties and neither can currently assume his support.
Looking to Africa's newest oil producer
The international markets are optimistic that Ghana's elections will pass smoothly. In late November, Standard & Poor's (S&P) Ratings Services maintained its B ratings for Ghana's long-term and short-term foreign- and local-currency sovereign debt, with a stable outlook. The elections are important for further consolidating Ghana's democracy and building up the credibility and institutions required to oversee Ghana's newly found oil and gas windfall. Whoever wins will need to manage expectations, seriously combat corruption and reform the tax system including working out the fairest way to tax the vital mining sector.
In a region where the promise of 'Africa Rising' is meeting the complicated reality of on-going political, economic and security challenges, Ghana's continued stability and growth provides an important foundation for optimism. For this reason, these elections are important not just for Ghana, but for the growing number of states and actors seeking to benefit from increasing confidence in Africa.
Alex Vines is Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; and Head, Africa Programme of Chatham House.