While the U.S. presidential election continues to dominate international headlines, another country is gearing up for a high-stakes electoral contest. On December 7, 2016, Ghanaians will go to the polls for the seventh time since the country’s transition to multiparty democracy in the early 1990s. The West African nation is often praised as a model of democratic stability in the region. However, some troubling political developments in the run-up to the December elections have shed light on the limits of these democratic gains.

Ghana has held six multiparty elections since 1992. In both 2000 and 2008, the incumbent president and ruling party accepted their electoral defeat and peacefully ceded power to the opposition. The country ranks high on cross-national indices measuring the rule of law, media freedom, and other indicators of democratic consolidation. After decades of political turmoil and military rule, a contentious but relatively stable party system has taken root, with two roughly equally matched parties facing off in highly competitive elections. Both the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP) compete for votes beyond their ethno-regional strongholds. Despite heated campaign rhetoric and localized violence by party-affiliated gangs, both parties have so far resolved their electoral disputes using constitutional channels.

However, the lead-up to the 2016 elections has been fraught with tensions. The elections come at a pivotal time: Ghana’s economy was hit hard by the collapse of global commodity prices, forcing the resource-starved government to conclude a $918 million aid deal with the IMF to restore economic stability. Public discontent with the economic mismanagement of the NDC government led by President John Dramani Mahama is running high, exacerbated by recurring power shortages and several high-level corruption scandals. Seven out of ten Ghanaians believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction.1 Yet internal divisions within the opposition NPP, led by Nana Akufo-Addo, have weakened its ability to present a coherent alternative. Mistrust of the government among the NPP runs deep; many supporters believe that the NDC’s 2012 election victory was tainted by unfair electoral practices. For the seventy-two-year-old Akufo-Addo, the December elections are his third and probably last chance to become president.

High levels of partisanship are not a new phenomenon in Ghanaian politics. But the perceived high stakes on both sides have further worsened relations between the two main parties. Both the NDC and the NPP have engaged in bellicose and inflammatory rhetoric, accusing each other of undermining the fairness of the electoral process. As a result, procedural disputes have become increasingly politicized, with politicians questioning the integrity and competence of the Electoral Commission (EC) and the judiciary. In addition, political parties have proven unable or unwilling to curb fears of voter intimidation and low-level violence by party activists. These trends point to a structural problem in Ghanaian politics: the concentration of power and patronage in the executive encourages political elites to win elections at all costs, thereby repeatedly placing the country’s electoral institutions under severe stress.

The Electoral Commission Under Fire

Over the past two decades, Ghana’s Electoral Commission has played a key role in advancing agreement on the political rules of the game. The commission successfully pushed back against political interference, implemented wide-ranging electoral reforms, and fostered trust in the electoral process by prioritizing transparency and political party engagement.2 Yet the institution suffers significant shortcomings. It lacks financial autonomy from the government, a fact that has been abused by ruling officials seeking to stifle the EC’s reform initiatives. Insufficient dissemination and public discussion of important electoral reforms have allowed rumors to spread and enabled politicians eager to capitalize on popular anxiety. As a result, the commission’s significant efforts to enhance voting transparency and improve registration procedures have failed to eliminate allegations of fraud. The EC also lacks the legal authority to speed up the resolution of post-electoral disputes, which under the current system are resolved in the courts and tend to drag on for months if not years.3

These problems came to the fore after the disputed 2012 presidential election. The NPP challenged the NDC’s narrow electoral victory, arguing in the Supreme Court that widespread irregularities should invalidate the results. The judicial dispute, which went on for eight months and was broadcast live on television and radio, highlighted significant flaws in the country’s electoral system.

Although the Supreme Court eventually dismissed the NPP’s petition, it found that there had indeed been significant voting irregularities, including over-voting, unsigned results declarations, and unverified voters. The court concluded that these breaches were unlikely to have determined the election outcome, but its findings nevertheless bolstered the opposition’s claims that the process had been distorted. At the very least, it seemed like the Electoral Commission had failed to ensure professionalism and compliance at the ground level. While the NPP’s acceptance of the Supreme Court’s verdict was widely praised as further proof of Ghana’s democratic consolidation, many opposition supporters accused the justices of political bias.4 The reputation of the Electoral Commission had taken a hit: even the justices underlined that improvements had to be made ahead of the next general election.5

This year, the commission has again become embroiled in a series of legal challenges. One issue of heated dispute is the voter register, which has been a long-standing source of partisan conflict. The NPP and its supporters have pushed for a complete overhaul of the register, arguing that it includes foreigners and minors. The newly appointed head of the Electoral Commission, Charlotte Osei, initially dismissed these demands, and, after an independent investigation, affirmed that the existing register was credible.6 In May 2016, the Supreme Court directly repudiated the commission by ordering it to remove and re-register all voters who in 2012 had signed up using their National Health Insurance Scheme cards, which the court determined to be an invalid proof of identity.7 This ruling deeply upset many NDC supporters, who saw it as pandering to the opposition. The Electoral Commission and the judiciary suddenly found themselves on opposing sides of a partisan feud.

A second issue of dispute is the Electoral Commission’s (ultimately aborted) effort to outsource the electronic transmission of results to a third party, which the NPP condemned as unconstitutional and wasteful.8 Finally, in October 2016, the commission sparked renewed outrage when it disqualified thirteen of the seventeen presidential aspirants, citing errors in the nomination forms of multiple opposition parties. Several applicants successfully appealed the decision in the courts. The disqualified candidates accused the EC of acting politically and unfairly, whereas the NDC denounced the opposition for seeking to delegitimize the commission’s work.9

In short, legal and procedural disputes regarding the electoral process have become increasingly politicized, and opposition parties have seized the opportunity to question the credibility and independence of the Electoral Commission. Samuel Pyne, the Ashanti regional secretary of the NPP, went so far as to accuse the commission of deleting the names of NPP supporters from the register. Lack of information about voter registration procedures has exacerbated public suspicions.10

While the commission has in some instances rightfully been criticized for poor communication, logistical mismanagement, and perhaps even complacency, its actions to date do not seem to betray any systematic bias. Over the past several months, the EC has made a concerted effort to improve its public outreach. It has also committed to posting official polling station results on its website after the announcement of the official results, allowing parties and voters to verify that the results certified by the EC match those provided to party agents at the local level. By exploiting the commission’s weaknesses to question its integrity, the opposition is playing a dangerous game: it risks undermining citizens’ trust in the electoral process and potentially increasing the probability of unrest in case of another NPP defeat at the polls.

Questioning the Judiciary

Ghana’s judiciary, which is the other key institution that has traditionally helped de-escalate political disputes, is also facing heightened questioning and criticism. In 2015, Ghana’s justice system was rocked by the biggest judicial corruption scandal in decades. In September 2015, the investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas released a documentary that showed footage of twelve high court justices, twenty-two lower court magistrates, and 180 judicial officials of varying ranks accepting bribes and extorting money from litigants over the past two years.11 The revelations confirmed perceptions of endemic judicial corruption and caused a public outcry across Ghanaian society. Attempts to conceal the extent of wrongdoing and uncertainty about the consequences for the implicated officials—some of whom challenged the investigative procedures initiated against them—further tarnished the credibility of the system.12

More recently, the Supreme Court made waves after convicting the “Montie 3”—a radio presenter and two panelists on the pro-NDC radio station Montie FM—for holding the court in contempt. The three men had threatened on air to rape the chief justice and kill two other Supreme Court justices who had ordered the Electoral Commission to revise the voter register, and accused the justices of fomenting electoral violence.13 After multiple petitions were initiated by pro-government groups, President Mahama decided to remit their four-month sentence, a move that was seen by some as a blatant misuse of executive power that has undercut the authority of the judiciary.14 While defenders of the president blamed the court for limiting journalists’ freedom of expression, others noted that the president’s pardon seemed to condone hate speech in an already heated political climate.15

Political actors’ willingness to question the impartiality of Ghana’s electoral institutions and to politicize ongoing disputes signals a worrisome trend. Afrobarometer data show that from 2002 to 2014, Ghanaians’ trust in state institutions decreased significantly. Following the protracted 2012 post-electoral dispute, 59 percent of respondents reported having little or no trust in the Electoral Commission.16 While trust in the institution seems to have been at least partially restored since then, an October 2016 pre-election survey by the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana) revealed that almost one-quarter of Ghanaians continue to doubt the integrity of the voter register, and only half believe that the correct ballot count will be announced.17 No matter the outcome of the elections, a weakened EC and embattled judiciary will be less capable of speedily and effectively resolving post-election disputes and ensuring parties and their supporters do not resort to extra-constitutional channels. In addition, popular trust in political parties’ respect for the rules of the game remains low: slightly more than 50 percent of respondents are convinced that political parties and candidates are very likely or likely to ignore electoral laws and use violence.18

Fears of Electoral Violence

In comparison to regional flash points such as Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, Ghana’s electoral contests have been remarkably peaceful. Ahead of the December polls, fears of violent clashes are nevertheless running high. In previous elections, the two dominant parties both used violent intimidation to suppress their opponent’s turnout.19 However, this type of violence has largely been concentrated in certain regions and shaped by local drivers of conflict. In northern Ghana, for example, election-related conflict is closely intertwined with chieftaincy disputes, with local tribal divides mirroring national partisan lines. In the two parties’ respective regional strongholds, violence during the pre- and post-vote periods often takes on an explicitly ethnic dimension. Electoral violence in Accra, the capital, has typically involved the mobilization of unemployed young men into party-affiliated gangs, with few ethnic overtones.20

Over the past several months, the Ghana police have identified more than 5,000 flash points where violence could erupt. Partisan vigilante groups have emerged as a particular concern. Under the banner of providing security, so-called party foot soldiers are often directly involved in engaging in voter intimidation, seizing or vandalizing public or party properties, or perpetrating violent attacks and clashes with supporters of the opposing camp.21 Officials are worried about a potential repeat of the 2015 by-elections, when violent clashes broke out between party-affiliated gangs in the Talensi-Nabdam district in the Upper East Region. There were also incidents of violence against the Electoral Commission’s offices and officials in Brong-Ahafo and the northern regions during the 2016 voter registration exercise.22 Representatives of both the NDC and the NPP blame each other for recruiting “macho men” ready to engage in violence and intimidation.23

In May 2016, all of Ghana’s major political parties issued a communiqué in which they committed to disassociating themselves from all vigilante groups and their activities and stated that they would “not employ the services of militant pressure groups at any time before, during and after the 2016 general elections.”24 The police have repeatedly emphasized that unofficial security groups are illegal and begun providing security to all presidential and vice presidential candidates. However, despite official condemnations of vigilantism, no party has a direct incentive to actively disband existing groups or stop recruiting foot soldiers at the local level without the assurance that the other party will do the same.25

Despite these security concerns, large-scale violence remains unlikely. In response to the hostile political climate, both state security forces and civil society have invested significant efforts into minimizing the risk of violent escalation. The West African Network for Peacebuilding has established a National Early Warning System that brings together a wide range of civil society and state security actors working to identify potential conflicts before they spin out of control. As in 2012, Ghanaian security agencies have formed a National Election Security Task Force to coordinate their efforts, and corresponding district-level task forces have been set up across the country. 26 Importantly, citizen confidence in the neutrality and effectiveness of security services remains high.27

However, even low-scale electoral violence can have harmful consequences for democracy. The presence of irregular security groups reduces voters’ trust in political parties, undermines formal electoral rules, and exacerbates the general climate of insecurity: CDD-Ghana’s October 2016 pre-election survey indicates almost one-third of respondents see a likelihood of violence breaking out between rival political party supporters in their constituency.28 The continuous risk of violence can also detract from substantive policy debates, as media and civil society attention to security concerns and conflict prevention may overshadow public engagement with party platforms and track records. Lastly, political parties’ reliance on informally recruited foot soldiers that expect compensation for their service speaks to a bigger malaise in Ghanaian politics: the tendency of the victorious party to reward its supporters with access to jobs and state resources, thereby further marginalizing the opposition.

The Persistence of Winner-Takes-All Politics

In Ghana, a dominant executive branch with few horizontal checks on power coexists with a strong patronage system that requires politicians to channel rewards to core constituencies and informal support networks. The presidency has the power to appoint ministers, boards of state-owned enterprises, and district chief executives; these officials in turn award state contracts and create jobs for political allies.29 Given the existence of two equally matched political parties, this system gives rise to intense political competition between the incumbent and opposition parties. Both view control of the state as the only viable way to accumulate individual and party wealth and wield political power. For the incumbent government, the fear of selective prosecutions further heightens the stakes of electoral contests, as it may face retribution for abuses committed while in office.30

The high concentration of power in the hands of the central government derives from the 1992 constitution. Several constitutional provisions weaken the effectiveness and oversight functions of the legislature. For example, Article 108 bars the parliament from proposing any legislation that imposes a financial burden on the state. The speaker of the house is appointed by the president, and at least forty members of parliament also serve as part of the executive.31 Accountability for corruption by the ruling party is weak, as public prosecutors report to political appointees in the executive branch.32 To date, the executive has successfully blocked political and fiscal decentralization efforts.33

As a result, vertical accountability (that is, electoral competition) remains the primary check on the ruling party. However, as elections have become increasingly competitive, their cost has also increased. Both the NDC and the NPP have sought out private sector funding in return for preferential access to state resources.34 The monetization of elections and opaque financing practices create barriers to political participation and disadvantage women candidates in particular. Currently, only 10.9 percent of parliamentary seats are taken up by women, a share that is unlikely to increase significantly after the upcoming elections. Women often lack the funds and informal networks needed to run successful campaigns. The involvement of (male) foot soldiers agitating for political appointments also contributes to women’s marginalization.35

Increasing tensions ahead of the 2016 elections are thus symptomatic of a pluralistic political sphere that coincides with an executive-dominated patronage system with weak horizontal checks on power. Several factors have exacerbated these dynamics in the lead-up to the 2016 polls. Relations between the two main parties have worsened considerably since the 2012 electoral dispute. As outlined above, the 2012 post-election dispute and the 2015 corruption scandal—as well as a series of procedural disputes—have weakened the credibility of the Electoral Commission and the judiciary, respectively. Lastly, having been deprived from access to state resources for eight consecutive years, the NPP is in a weakened financial position and beset by internal divisions. Party officials have tried to make up for these weaknesses by scaling up their attacks against shortcomings in the electoral process.

Conclusions

The past year has shown that even in relatively consolidated democracies like Ghana, the legitimacy of independent constitutional bodies should not be taken for granted. In a context of intense polarization, nonpartisan electoral management institutions such as the Electoral Commission are crucial to preserving trust in the electoral process and outcome. However, they are at constant risk of being undermined by attempts at politicization. The aftermath of the December polls will show to what extent the Electoral Commission and judiciary can weather these attacks and still command the trust and respect of all sides of the political spectrum.

Can the international community do more to help Ghana overcome these challenges? Western aid has played a positive role in Ghana’s democratic consolidation over the past two decades. Donors have helped redress flaws in the country’s electoral process by supporting the professionalization of the Electoral Commission and supporting the Inter-Party Advisory Committee, which has been key to resolving interparty conflicts. Civil society aid has improved the capacity of nongovernmental organizations to conduct parallel vote tabulations, monitor electoral violence and media coverage, and implement civic education and peace campaigns.36 Continued international support for those institutions that bridge partisan divides and work against politicization may help counteract political parties eager to exploit their shortcomings. In particular, the most recent legal petition by three disqualified presidential aspirants just a few weeks before the election underscores the continued need for speedy, transparent, and credible channels for solving election-related disputes.

Political parties are another important area for international engagement. Rather than becoming more responsive to voters’ policy concerns as Ghanaian democracy has matured, parties continue to operate primarily as clientelistic election machines. Moreover, their internal decisionmaking and financing remain opaque, and women’s participation is minimal. Outside actors could help counteract these trends by supporting more platforms for policy-focused debates, working directly with female political candidates and party members, and bolstering civil society groups that advocate for campaign finance regulations and women’s political empowerment.

Yet outside actors wield limited leverage over key flaws in Ghana’s democracy.37 Reducing the concentration of power in the central government will require significant constitutional reforms and deep changes in the country’s political economy. In 2012, a Constitutional Review Commission appointed by then president John Atta Mills presented a wide range of reform recommendations, but political disagreements and legal challenges have so far delayed concrete action. Taking these efforts forward remains a key challenge for the next administration, and one that is likely to shape Ghana’s democratic trajectory in the years to come.

Notes

1 Ghana Center for Democratic Development, “Popular Opinions on Issues at Stake in the 2016 Election: Evidence from a CDD-Ghana Survey,” August 8, 2016, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwyXKaKMYxEXbmV2czhXd1NlSnZPYVkwVkJabVozSXM5WjBr/view.

2 Emmanuel Debrah, “Measuring Governance Institutions’ Success in Ghana: The Case of the Electoral Commission, 1993–2008,” African Studies 70, no. 1 (April 2011): 25–45.

3 Ibid., 39.

4 Charles Kwarteng, “Swords Into Ploughshares: The Judicial Challenge of Ghana’s 2012 Presidential Election Results,” Round Table 103, no. 1 (2014).

5 Nana Yaa Mensah, “Courting Controversies: Ghana’s Electoral Commission Under Fire Ahead of Close Elections,” African Arguments,October 31, 2016, http://africanarguments.org/2016/10/31/courting-controversies-ghanas-electoral-commission-under-fire-ahead-of-close-elections/.

6 Peter Clottey, “Ghana Electoral Commission Says No to New Voter List,” Voice of America, January 3, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/a/ghana-voter-list/3129422.html.

7 Naa Sakwaba Akwa, “Supreme Court Orders EC to Delete Names of 56,739 NHIS Card Holders From Register,” MyJoyOnline, July 5, 2016, http://www.myjoyonline.com/politics/2016/July-5th/supreme-court-orders-ec-to-delete-names-of-56000-nhis-carders-from-register.php.

8 Edwin Kwakofi, “NPP Misleading Ghanaians on E-transmission of Results - NDC,” Citifmonline, August 3, 2016, http://citifmonline.com/2016/08/03/npp-misleading-ghanaians-on-e-transmission-of-results-ndc/.

9 Peter Clottey, “Ghana: Opposition Party to Challenge Disqualification of Presidential Candidate,” Voice of America, October 13, 2016, http://allafrica.com/stories/201610130380.html; and Nana Yaa Mensah, “Courting Controversies.”

10 “EC Deliberately Deleting Names of NPP Supporters - Sam Pyne,” GhanaWeb, July 20, 2016, http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/EC-deliberately-deleting-names-of-NPP-supporters-Sam-Pyne-456677; and Peter Clottey, “Ghana Electoral Commission Rejects Accusation of Bias,” Voice of America, July 20, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/a/ghana-electoral-commission-rejects-accusation-of-bias/3427479.html.

11 Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2016: Ghana,” accessed November 30, 2016, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2016/ghana.

12 Clement Sefa-Nyarko, “In Ghana, Will Vast Judicial Corruption Scandal Undo 23 Years of Political Stability?” Global Observatory, September 23, 2015, https://theglobalobservatory.org/2015/09/ghana-judicial-scandal-ecowas-coup-etat/.

13 Naa Sakwaba Akwa, “Montie 3 Out! Hold Rally to Celebrate Freedom,” MyJoyOnline, August 26, 2016, http://www.myjoyonline.com/news/2016/august-26th/montie-3-out-hold-rally-to-celebrate-freedom.php.

14 Mildred Europa Taylor, “Montie 3 Remission: What This Means to Ghana’s Democracy,” Pulse.com.gh, August 26, 2016, http://pulse.com.gh/news/montie-3-remission-what-this-means-to-ghana-s-democracy-id5421567.html.

15 Cedric Tsuo, “The Montie 3 Controversy: My Perspective,” GhanaWeb, August 28, 2016, http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/features/The-Montie-3-controversy-My-perspective-465587.

16 Afrobarometer, “Trust and Corruption in Public Institutions: Ghanaian Opinions,” December 2, 2014, http://www.afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/media-briefing/ghana/gha_r6_presentation3_trust_corruption.pdf.

17 Ghana Center for Democratic Development, “Ghana’s 2016 Elections: Prospects for Credibility and Peacefulness,” October 2016, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByAq4dHfpyAtRlV0aFJJR2ZFcFk/view.

18 Ibid.

19 Jeff Fischer, “Electoral Conflict in Ghana,” Project on Explaining and Mitigating Electoral Violence, May 27, 2016, http://www.electoralviolenceproject.com/electoral_violence_ghana/.

20 Clementina Amankwaah, “Election-Related Violence: The Case of Ghana,” Current African Issuesno. 56, Nordic Africa Institute, 2013, https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:689688/FULLTEXT01.pdf.

21 While their affiliation with their respective parties typically remains informal, foot soldiers expect certain favors to be repaid in return for their efforts, either in the form of jobs, connections, or material rewards. Party foot soldiers’ activism is thus based on notions of reciprocity and the provision of personalized goods. In some instances, violence is directed against party operatives themselves, if the latter are perceived as not distributing the spoils of power as expected. George M. Bob-Milliar, “Party Youth Activists and Low-Intensity Electoral Violence in Ghana: A Qualitative Study of Party Foot Soldiers’ Activism,” African Studies Quarterly 15, no. 1 (December 2014).

22 Jonas Nyabor, “Kukuom Violence: EC Suspends Votes Transfer,” Citifmonline, September 19, 2016, http://citifmonline.com/2016/09/19/kukuom-violence-ec-suspends-votes-transfer/.

23 “Ayawaso Central NDC, NPP in Blame Game,” GhanaWeb, November 26, 2016, http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Ayawaso-Central-NDC-NPP-in-blame-game-489990.

24 Joseph Opku Gapko, “Equip Security Agencies to Stop Inflow of Illegal Weapons – Parties to Government,” MyJoyOnline, May 29, 2016, http://www.myjoyonline.com/politics/2016/May-29th/equip-security-agencies-to-stop-inflow-of-illegal-weapons-parties-to-govt.php.

25 Dorina A. Bekoe and Stephanie M. Burchard, “Ghana’s Perfect Storm: Is Africa’s Model Democracy in Danger of Faltering?” World Politics Review, October 11, 2016, http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/20156/ghana-s-perfect-storm-is-africa-s-model-democracy-in-danger-of-faltering.

26 National Democratic Institute, “Statement of the NDI Pre­-Election Assessment Mission to the 2016 Ghana Presidential and Parliamentary Elections,” press release, October 21, 2016, https://www.ndi.org/files/NDI%20Ghana%20Pre-Election%20Delegation%20Statement%20OCT%202016%20FINAL%20PDF_1.pdf, 5.

27 Ghana Center for Democratic Development, “Ghana’s 2016 Elections.”

28 Ibid.                                                                  

29 Leslie Fox, Barak Hoffman, Amos Anyimadu, and Michael Keshishian, “Ghana Democracy and Governance Assessment: Final Report,” U.S. Agency for International Development, August 2011, 7.

30 Remarks at “Ghana’s 2016 Elections: Assessing Public Confidence and State Preparedness,” National Endowment for Democracy, August 29, 2016, http://www.ned.org/events/ghanas-2016-elections-assessing-public-confidence-state-preparedness/.

31 E. Gyimah-Boadi and Theo Yakah, “Ghana: The Limits of External Democracy Assistance,” in Democratic Trajectories in Africa: Unravelling the Impact of Foreign Aid,eds. Danielle Resnick and Nicholas van de Walle (New York: Oxford University Press, January 2014).

32 Fox, Hoffman, Anyimadu, and Keshishian, “Ghana Democracy and Governance Assessment.”

33 Ibid.

34 Staffan I. Lindberg, “‘It’s Our Time to “Chop”’: Do Elections in Africa Feed Neo-Patrimonialism Rather Than Counteract It?” Democratization 10, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 121–40.

35 Sylvia Bawa and Francis Sanyare, “Women’s Participation and Representation in Politics: Perspectives From Ghana,” International Journal of Public Administration 36, no. 4 (2013), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01900692.2012.757620.

36 Gyimah-Boadi and Yakah, “Ghana: The Limits of External Democracy Assistance.”

37 Ibid.