Posted on Tuesday, 10 April 2012 17:35

Ghana's election watch: The vote starts here

By Patrick Smith in Accra

Politicians and their supporters are hell-bent on convincing an underwhelmed electorate that only their party has the know-how and the integrity to run the new oil economy.

To spend or not to spend $20-50m on a biometric register has been a tough question for Mills/Photo/XU SUHUI/XINHUA/SIPA PRESSThe starting gun will not be fired for another six months but the buzz of television talk shows and the roaring headlines of Accra's racy tabloids show the campaign for presidential and parliamentary elections is already on.

Party funding scandals, politicians consorting with drug barons and millions of barrels of oil gone missing – these are the meat and drink of the overblown political reporting already lighting up the campaign trail.

One part obstacle course and one part endur­ance test, the following 10 months of campaigning will pit President John Atta Mills of the governing National Democratic Congress (NDC) against Nana Akufo-Addo, presidential candidate of the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP).

Read more: Ghana's next leap forward and its perils

They will not be the only presidents or putative presidents in the campaign that culminates in national elections on 7 December. Former President Jerry John Rawlings now targets his rhetorical outbursts – or "boom speeches" – at his colleagues in the NDC as much as his opponents in the NPP.

More from our March 2012 Ghana Special:
People to Watch in Ghana in 2012
Agriculture: Brown gold jackpot
Power: Of transformers and substations
Ghana, the fight over state or market
Ghana: Big Oil stakes for the little guys
Ghana's mining sector shares the shine

Gentle giant ex-president John Agyekum Kufuor seems to have dropped his reservations about Akufo-Addo and is now using his formidable network to help his ambitious successor. 
Top of the scandal list this year was an investigation by journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas into corruption and mismanagement at the state electricity company, which has yet to collect debts of some ¢400m ($235m). Some of the company's worst debtors, Anas reported, include the Office of the President and several multinational companies.

Also read: Akuffo Addo - Ghana's democracy is on trial

For all those long-suffering electricity consumers, plagued by erratic supplies and exponentially rising tariffs, Anas had explained the causes of their torment. For once, the state bureaucrats had to take the complaints seriously, issuing what might have passed for an apology. 

So far, this year's campaign has been following the script of 2008 – but with the roles of the parties reversed. The NPP is now trying to take on the mantle of 'conscience of the people' and doughty fighter against the depredations of the government. 

The NPP represents the NDC government as fat, corrupt and uncaring. That is proving difficult because Mills remains personally popular even if the shenanigans of many senior party officials raise big questions for voters. 

Much of this campaign is turning into a personal contest between Mills and Akufo-Addo. Akufo-Addo has had to work harder than Mills to soften his image and has taken to wearing locally sewn batik shirts in favour of the previously obligatory three-piece suit. Almost effortlessly avuncular, Mills finds it easy to connect with voters but less easy to explain the government's achievements.

The tougher the election campaign, the more pressure on the Electoral Commission of Ghana (ECG) and its straight-talking director Kwadwo Afari-Djan. Together they have supervised five multiparty elections since 1992, and each one has been more credible than its predecessor.

Also read: Mills comes out fighting

Now, the NPP's demands for the introduction of a biometric and electronically verifiable voters' register offer a new challenge. The NDC government opposes the biometric system, which costs between $20-50m, by arguing that it is an unnecessary expense. Afari-Djan, who is trying to stay above the fray, argues that the best protection against electoral malpractices is vigilance on the part of polling agents and constituency executives.

All sides, especially the civil groups, have sounded warnings about violence. NPP supporters complained of beatings and intimidation in the NDC's Volta Region strongholds in 2008. At the same time, NDC supporters complained of similar treatment in the NPP's Ashanti Region stronghold.

Another unresolved issue is the ECG's plan to create 45 new parliamentary constituencies to keep pace with the growing population recorded in the 2010 national census. Like the recent creation of 42 new districts, the constituencies could become flashpoints for local disputes, such as the conflicts between settled communities and Fulani herdsmen in the Northern and Ashanti regions in 2011.

Mills's health and Akufo-Addo's commitment will be tested harshly in the coming months: campaigns in Ghana, involving thousands of bumpy and uncomfortable miles in four-wheel-drive vehicles, are notoriously unforgiving for the faint-hearted and unfit.

This article was first published in the 2012 March edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands, via our print subscription or our digital edition.

Last Updated on Friday, 20 April 2012 10:21

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