In Turbulent Region, Stable Ghana Heads for Tight Election

  • Weak performance of ruling party may hold key to outcome
  • President John Mahama seeks second term in Dec. 7 vote

A New Patriotic Party supporter during a campaign rally in Accra, on Dec. 4.

Photographer: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

Since the end of military rule more than two decades ago, to many Ghanaians presidential elections have become routine: a close race between the two main parties and disputes settled in court.

While two of its West African neighbors have teetered on the brink of civil war and a third, Togo, has been ruled by the same family for 49 years, Ghanaians have come to take their nation’s political stability for granted.

“It’s no big deal,” said Solomon Tetteh, a 23-year-old father of two who sells coconuts at a bustling market in the capital, Accra. “Those interested in leadership campaign for votes. Some win, others lose and life goes on.”

That doesn’t mean it’ll be smooth sailing for President John Mahama, 58, who’s seeking a second term on Dec. 7. More than ever, issues such as food prices and high utility bills are likely to dominate the election, with traditional ethnic and regional loyalties only partly deciding the outcome, according to polls and analysts.

“What will really hold sway in this election will be the issue of the economy and jobs,” Evans Aggrey-Darkoh, a political science lecturer at the University of Ghana in Accra, said in an interview. “Voters are looking at micro-issues, including their personal economic situation, high utility bills and perceptions on corruption.”

Economic Record

While Mahama’s easy-going manner and straightforward style of speaking still resonates with many voters, his economic record is patchy. 

After expanding at the fastest pace in Africa at 14 percent with the start of oil exports in 2011, the economy is projected to grow 3.3 percent this year, the slowest in two decades. Critics from evangelical preachers to pop stars have lambasted Mahama’s failure to solve a crippling energy crisis that resulted in routine 24-hour power cuts.

Stubbornly high inflation peaked at almost 20 percent in January, which prompted the central bank to raise its key lending rate to as much as 26 percent. Ghana has also racked up foreign debt, selling $2.75 billion in Eurobonds over the past three years.

Mahama’s main adversary, Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party, says that mismanagement and graft worsened already high poverty levels in a country where the minimum daily wage is just 8 cedis ($1.83). Brandishing “change” as his key campaign slogan, he’s pledged to create jobs, boost industrialization and fight corruption.

At 72, the former lawyer is bidding for the presidency for a third time. He was defeated by 3 percentage points in the 2012 elections. Critics allege he’s too old for the job and say his party has been dogged by infighting and leadership disputes. Akufo-Addo has dismissed these accusations.

Regional Divide

Ghana’s relatively poor northern region traditionally votes for Mahama’s National Democratic Congress, while the central regions dominated by the Akan ethnic group vote for the NPP, which ruled the country from 2000 to 2008. The southern coast and Accra, whose congested roads are lined with massive campaign billboards, are considered swing areas.

The two main parties accused one another of vote rigging on Monday, with the campaign coordinator of the NDC playing a recording to reporters purporting to show officials of the electoral commission in collusion with the NPP. The press briefing came hours after members of the NPP in the central Ashanti region said they found bags with ballot papers bearing thumb prints for Mahama. The regional director of the election commission, Serebour Quaicoe, told Joy TV the ballots weren’t part of a consignment distributed for voting.

Mahama “will have a difficult message in trying to convince Ghanaians for a second term of four years,” Godfred Bokpin, head of the finance department at the University of Ghana’s Business School, said in an interview. “Given the level of economic predicament Ghanaians are going through, we should not be surprised if we have a change of government.”

Mahama has pinned the blame for Ghana’s sluggish growth on a global decline in commodity prices that’s hurt income from oil, cocoa and gold. The government trimmed its bloated wage bill and narrowed the budget deficit to 5.2 percent of gross domestic product after it was forced to seek an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund last year.

Scarce Jobs

“The government is at a loss on how to create jobs for the youth and graduates,” said Desmond Bress-Biney, who heads the Unemployed Graduates Association of Ghana, which says it has 60,000 members.

The almost perfect balance in support for the two main parties mean that the outcome of the vote may be contested in court again, in a repeat scenario of the 2012 election. But this time around, authorities appear worried about violence, with Ghana’s police chief saying that the activities of young party militants have reached “dangerous proportions.”

Allegations of fraud by the opposition, whose demands for a new voter list weren’t met, may also trigger unrest, according to Philip Walker, a political analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, in an e-mailed response to questions.

“While Ghana’s overall stability is not in danger, if the current government is re-elected there is a notable chance of unrest by the opposition who throughout the election process has complained that it’s not a level playing field,” Walker said.

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