Accra — This is the last week before Ghana's population exercises its civic right (popularly known as 'krokromoti power') to vote in presidential and legislative elections.
The past few months of campaigning have been intense, and the cornucopia of rallies, public debates and door-to-door campaigns have reached a climax, with media reports suggesting that collectively, GHC549 million (US$288 million) has been spent on the exercise.
The carnival tone of the rallies has been countered by the more sobering, incendiary language of some politicians and activists as well as isolated instances of political violence, giving way to a sense of unease surrounding the conduct of the polls. The collective decision by the 'international community' not to attend the elections this time around suggests a certain level of maturity in Ghana's democratic tradition; one hopes that this level of confidence is not misplaced.
"Belonging to a political party doesn't make us enemies" were the words of Reverend Asante, the Chairman of the National Peace Council, but with the atmosphere on the ground as it is, you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. A number of party supporters - and to a lesser extent candidates themselves - have gradually engaged in fighting talk in which character assassinations, injurious comments and ethnocentricism have been employed in a bid to curry favour with voters.
This will be the first time for seven out of the eight candidates on the ballot that they have put themselves forward for election before the Ghanaian electorate. It will also be the first chance for the Progressive Peoples Party (PPP) to put their ideals for change to the electorate, having been created less than a year ago by Paa Kwesi Ndoum. This is a party which has the potential to become kingmaker, should the elections get pushed into a second round. For one of the candidates, Nana Akufo-Addo, flag-bearer of the main opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP), this is likely to be his last bid for the presidency, having come agonisingly close in 2008.
Ghana's upward development trajectory has meant that these polls are being fought with particular ferocity, as victory in 2012 will elevate the incumbent's chances in 2016 on the back of a rising tide of economic growth. With the economy set to grow by 8 percent in 2012, compared to the 4.99 percent average across the continent, the next party in power will have the advantage of being able to woo the voter with impressive big-spend projects.
Such a scenario, however, pre-supposes that the Ghanaian voter is swayed predominantly by policies and deliverables and not the traditionally important notion of ethnicity. There is no escaping the fact that this is a major consideration for most Ghanaians, to the extent that even some of the presidential candidates have made appeals to the electorate on this basis. Akufo-Addo addressed voters at a rally by saying "yen Akan fwor" meaning "we the Akans", while president Mahama pleaded to northern constituents to "vote for one of their own".
Such comments have, however, come under public attack on account of the extent to which they have the potential to fuel a "them and us" mentality to the detriment of a national identity. The Electoral Commission has identified 42 out of the 275 nationwide constituencies which it considers as potential flashpoints on the basis of precedent and instances of violence in the build-up to the polls.
Preach the Peace
In reaction to this potential for unrest, the message of peace has been widely preached across party lines and endorsed by civil society including influential traditional leaders, religious groups, former presidents and artists on the popular culture scene. The recent signing of the 'Kumasi Declaration' for peace between all eight of the presidential aspirants was indication that even in a country that is considered democratically mature amongst its peers, there is no room for complacency.
Speaking on the popular 'Talking Points' programme, Reverend Asante acknowledged that "it is important to take precautions because we know what happened during the [biometric] registration".
There has been more of a concerted effort this year to engage the population on policy issues through the vector of the media. The televised presidential debates organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) was, for the first time, aired across all the major television channels, played widely across the radio stations and widely reported in the newspapers. It provided a strong campaign platform for the flag-bearers of four of the parties to outline their pledges on a number of issues, including a discussion over governance, education, healthcare, the economy and security.
The two major parties find their roots in distinct rival political ideologies - the NDC considers itself aligned with the centre-left 'Nkrumahist' tradition, while the NPP draws inspiration from the 'Danquah-Busia' tradition. However, over the years there has been a substantial convergence of ideologies, with both parties pursuing a pragmatic blend of liberalisation and government intervention. The smaller parties also find their roots in the Nkrumahist tradition, namely the Convention People's Party (CPP), founded by the man himself, the Great Consolidated Popular Party (GCPP) and the People's National Congress (PNC) .
The PPP (a breakaway from the CPP) has preferred not to align itself with any political ideology in particular, although its emphasis on job creation could be deemed an ideology in itself. All parties are unified however in the desire to address the country's challenging human development and physical infrastructure gaps, which implies heavy government spending to create jobs and raise productivity. Whoever wins will need to be cautious of over-spending, as Ghana has suffered from a recurring fiscal crises, bearing heavily on external balances, there is no fiscal law to stop overspend.
For some, it will take time before policy objectives really resonate with the Ghanaian voter, because as Paa Kow Ackon, the Deputy National Secretary of the PPP put it, the problem stems from "people's understanding of issues - half of the people cannot read or write. People just follow the crowd. They vote on what is happening. They've seen a lot of people voting this way and then they go that way...[but it is] when you are educated that you feel that you must challenge the status [quo] but when you are uneducated you feel that they are even doing you a favour".
Education is a hot topic across the parties, the PPP leading the charge in its espousal of free secondary high school education, but it was when it was adopted as a pledge of the NPP that it became sensationalised. According to Isaac Osei, the NPP candidate for the Subin constituency in the Ashanti region, free education "is not a just a social service, it is a development imperative".
The NDC too is convinced that education is the way forward, placing the emphasis on ensuring widespread access for all, by "rapidly expanding access to quality education at both the basic and secondary levels by ensuring that the 20 percent of children who are not in school gain access to schooling" as stated in its manifesto.
A test for democratic institutions
With just a few days to go before votes are cast, the real test of Ghana's democracy will be in the conduct of the polls. Elections deemed to be free and fair will ensure greater legitimacy for whoever eventually makes it to power. But with the EC coming under increasing criticism over its failure to tackle the inclusion of minors on the electoral list and the non-registration of some 3,000 constituents in the north, it does not inspire the level of confidence that a nation heading to the ballot box for the sixth time should. The security operatives are on the alert and candidates, faith-based groups and traditional leaders among others have been appealing to the electorate to desist from violent conduct.
There is the knowledge among Ghanaians that the eyes of the world are upon the country. As eminent Ghanaian statesman and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan put it: "Beyond party differences, there is the greater national interest at stake. After the elections, we shall have to work together across party lines to pursue the development of our country. Much remains to be done to ensure a better future for our children. We cannot afford to let them down."
Kissy Agyeman-Togobo is Partner at Songhai Advisory LLP.