Ghanaians go to the polls today in what has become a familiar electoral process. For more than 20 years and seven election cycles, the political landscape has been dominated by the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and National Patriotic Party (NPP).
For the third election in a row, Nana Akufo-Addo of the NPP and John Mahama of the NDC face off as the main presidential contenders. Notably, is the first time a current and former president are contesting in an election, allowing voters to review both candidates’ presidential records rather than comparing only their campaign promises.
Ghana’s path to the stable democracy it is today has not been without issues. The country’s political history was largely shaped by military coups and single-party rule before Jerry Rawlings led the transition to multi-party democracy in 1992. Rawlings, who died last month, leaves behind a complex legacy as a beloved yet controversial leader. He first came to power as the head of a military junta in 1981 and then served two terms as an elected president, illustrating Ghana’s complicated relationship with democracy.
Today, Ghana’s democratic progress is often referenced as a model for the region. But this reputation may also play against it. With Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea suffering from “third-termism” and Mali recovering from a military coup, the strength of Ghana’s democracy is taken for granted.
Still, it is as important as ever to invest more in Ghana’s democratic institutions and ensure elections are transparent, inclusive, and peaceful. Ghana is not alone in its complicated path to democracy. The 2010 double victories of President Alpha Condé in Guinea and President Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire were hailed as momentous turning points for the two countries, which were emerging from various forms of domestic strife. Condé and Ouattara, who had both spent decades in the opposition struggling against injustice and repression, were expected to breathe new life into multiparty democracy in their countries.
Instead, Condé and Ouattara seem to have taken lessons from the autocratic leaders they fought to depose, mounting increasing restrictions on the political space. This year, both leaders won controversial third terms in office despite constitutionally enshrined limits of two terms. Subsequently, Ivorian authorities arrested over a dozen opposition leaders who boycotted the 31 October election and held their own inauguration of the former prime minister, Pascal Affi N’Guessan. In Guinea, authorities arrested at least three prominent opposition figures as part of a sweep against opposition leaders and activists after the 18 October election.
Although Ghana has managed to avoid these trends, democratisation is a continual process and certain persistent gaps may undermine this experience in the long run.
Political parties have a strong role to play in bolstering Ghana’s democracy. First, parties should embrace and promote policies driven by citizens’ priority issues and needs. Although the NDC professes to be a social democratic party and the NPP liberal democratic, in practice both parties rely primarily on promises of social services to attract voters. But, when there is a transition in power, the incoming administration will often refuse to finish projects started during the preceding party’s term. The new administration avoids dedicating resources to a project for which another party would be able to claim credit, which leaves Ghanaians with critical gaps in social services.
In addition, political parties should help to ensure the complete participation of women in politics. As the first woman to appear on a major party’s presidential ticket, Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang, NDC vice-presidential candidate, has dominated headlines. Other than Opoku-Agyemang, women are largely absent from Ghana’s political landscape. With women comprising just 13% of MPs, Ghana lags far behind its democratic peers, and ranks well below the average of 23.8% for sub-Saharan Africa. Parties should adopt stronger measures, such as internal quota systems, to attract women candidates and facilitate the participation of women at all levels of politics in Ghana.
Ghana’s democracy requires safeguarding to ensure it can stand up to the wave of authoritarian backsliding sweeping the continent. Protecting and strengthening democratic institutions, norms and traditions will be key to upholding the country’s status as a stable democracy.
Miriam Frost is the West Africa programme officer at the International Republican Institute, a non-profit based in Washington DC.