/ 2 March 2021

It’s time to start taking West Africa’s legislative contests more seriously

Ghana Vote
Close call: People watch the count of ballots at a polling station after the vote for the presidential election on 7 December. (Cristina Aldehuela/AFP)

Parliamentary elections were scheduled in as many as 16 African countries in 2020 but due to the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, four of these polls were postponed. In 2021, a further 10 countries are scheduled to hold legislative votes.

Despite the frequency of these elections, rarely do they attract significant international media coverage or scrutiny from election observation groups. In fact, legislative polls seldom feature in the planning of domestic or international election observation missions, even though parliamentary processes are used as indicators for tracking fraud or the potential for conflict in presidential polls, particularly when the two are held concurrently.

Recent elections in Uganda are a good example. The international media was almost exclusively focused on the presidential contest between President Yoweri Museveni and Bobi Wine. There was little mention of the process that produced 529 parliamentarians. While in Uganda the majority of MPs elected were members of the ruling National Resistance Movement, in other recent elections in Africa the president’s party has not always been able to secure a legislative majority. 


Ghana’s hung parliament

For the first time since the Fourth Republic began in 1993, Ghana has a hung parliament. Despite its failure to win back the presidency in the December 2020 polls, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) did claw back a 63 seat deficit in the parliament. Both it and the incumbent New Patriotic Party (NPP) won 137 seats, in the 275 member parliament.

The single independent member has so far chosen to align with the NPP. But the speaker of the house, Alban Sumana Bagbin, is a member of the NDC, elected after two members of the NPP broke rank and voted for him during the secret ballot process.

The current situation has already generated several contentious issues for Bagbin to resolve, including who should be the majority side, how the allocation of committee members should be done and who should chair which committee. The speaker recently ruled that NPP shall be the majority side because of the independent MPs’ formal request to seat with the NPP. But with the NPP and the NDC challenging 12 parliamentary results, the make-up of parliament could still change significantly.

There are parallels between Ghana’s current reality and the outcome of Sierra Leone’s March 2018 general election where, initially at least, the All People’s Congress’s candidate lost the presidential race, but the party was still able to maintain its parliamentary majority.

Subsequent legal challenges changed those dynamics, handing the Sierra Leone People’s Party a slender majority in the legislature to go with its control of the executive. But these two recent examples, both in dominant two-party systems, raise important questions about voter choice and have implications for elections and governance in West Africa.

Sending a message?

A pre-election survey led by academics from the University of Ghana predicted that the incumbent NPP was going to face a strong challenge from the opposition in the parliamentary elections, but no one predicted just how strong. Several factors contributed to the unexpected result.

First, many NPP candidates and supporters emerged from the party primary process deeply dissatisfied. In some cases, candidates with greater popular support were bullied or priced out of the contest by those with greater resources and the backing of the president or senior party officials. In other constituencies, ministers of state and existing MPs were shielded from a party primary challenge and were elected unopposed.

Scholars working on electoral politics in Ghana have shown that parties suffer at the polls when they try to impose candidates on constituents and that voters become more sophisticated the more they participate in elections. In short, the NPP paid the penalty for the way it conducted its primaries.

However, this is not the full story. In several cases where the NPP parliamentary candidate was rejected by voters, the party’s presidential candidate was still favoured. Similarly, in some constituencies, voters voted for the NDC presidential candidate but elected an NPP MP.

For example, in the Kintampo South constituency in Bono East Region, former President John Mahama, the NDC presidential aspirant, took 52.99% of the vote but the same constituents elected an NPP MP with 49.44% of the vote. In Agona East constituency in the Central Region, President Nana Akufo-Addo received 51.99% of the vote but an NDC candidate was elected as MP, with 50.5% of the vote.  This phenomenon of ticket-splitting — referred to in local parlance as “skirt and blouse” voting — is becoming more prevalent. In 2008, there were 19 skirt and blouse seats; that rose to 26 in 2012, 28 in 2016 and 33 in 2020.

If the current configuration of Ghana’s parliament avoids governance gridlock and instead functions to promote stronger accountability and transparency, this type of voting may increase still further in Ghana in 2024.

Bagbin’s remarks at the first sitting of the 8th parliament signalled his intention to steer the legislature away from excessive partisanship and gridlock; and to ensure it can exercise its oversight responsibilities and assert its independence. If realised, the impact of this could be greater scrutiny exercised by a legislature that is not simply a rubber stamp approving the will of the executive. 

Parliamentary scrutiny

Credible elections remain an important mechanism for sustaining and strengthening democracy in Africa. Over the years, election watchers have been consumed by presidential elections, in part because of the dominance of the executive in many countries on the continent.

As a result, parliamentary polls have not received the serious attention they deserve.

But recent elections in Ghana and Sierra Leone underscore the growing importance of the outcome of legislative races for the way in which democratic institutions function in the periods between polls.

In Ghana’s most recent vote, as results began to trickle in, there was an increased focus on the parliamentary outcome among election observers. But moving forward, this focus in Ghana and elsewhere should be embedded into the initial approach. Domestic election observation groups should mount special observations of selected parliamentary races in addition to the general presidential election watch, while international observers should send missions to watch parliamentary polls even when there are no presidential polls. Results at this level indicate an increased level of sophistication in how voters cast their ballots and offer a more nuanced indicator of people’s evaluation of a government. It is time to start paying more attention to what they tell us about the state of a country’s electoral democracy.

This is part of a series of essays exploring the state of electoral democracy in Africa that is being run in conjunction with the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development