Ahead of the just concluded Ghanaian elections, a strange and fascinated phenomenon emerged: the Opposition NDC party consistently beat the ruling NPP party in virtually all large online polls and sentiment surveys. Yet, most professional researchers and pollsters were predicting the opposite outcome: a handy defeat of the Opposition, often by a roughly 10% margin.
IMANI, the organisation in which I hold an honorary executive position, was curious about this and drilled down further. We discovered that the swing regions were actually split between the two political parties suggesting a much tighter race than the pollsters and researchers were predicting.
On 9th December, IMANI’s premonitions, widely shared with the public, were confirmed by the Electoral Commission (EC), the independent constitutional body tasked with running Ghanaian elections, when it declared the sitting President the winner of the polls. The declaration can only be overturned by the Supreme Court, which in 2012 refused a similar invitation by the current ruling NPP party. Given that the majority of judges then and now had been appointed by the NPP, the restraint set an almost impossible bar for annulments of presidential elections.
The EC’s announcement itself was preceded, marked and followed by a comedy of arithmetic errors (it has changed the Presidential vote tallies about 6 times, but still failed to clear lingering doubt about the results’ finality), which somewhat took the shine off the typical incident-free voting, long a hallmark of Ghanaian democracy.
Whilst the Opposition disputes the results, partly blaming the “collation” errors and decrying the involvement of the military at some collation centers (where vote summaries from individual polling stations must be physically brought and manually tabulated and added up), brought in ostensibly to keep the peace but ended up, according to the NDC, preventing the Opposition from protesting suppression of evidence in their favour, what is not in doubt is that the gap between the candidates is closer to 3% than 10%.
The tightness of the elections is even better exemplified by the Opposition’s dramatic “flipping” of the Capital City region, Greater Accra, which has the most votes in the country. And even more sensationally by the wiping out of the ruling Party’s 63 seat majority in the 275-seat Parliament. As at the time of writing, one seat is yet to be declared by the EC; an NPP-leaning independent holds another; and 137 have been declared for the NPP, with the NDC officially bagging 136.
However, there are twists everywhere. The NDC is sure of winning the outstanding seat (Sene West), pushing their tally to 137. They are disputing the outcomes of 3 seats, with pundits tipping them to overturn the results of at least Techiman South, one of the constituencies where party activists and the military’s involvement disrupted the normal flow of proceedings.
The NPP plans to challenge the results of the Banda seat, and potentially Savelugu, both in former electoral heartlands of the NDC. The EC plans to create a new constituency in the Guan area called Buem. Previous electoral trends suggest the NDC stands a better chance of winning this seat.
In short, a slim majority in Parliament for the Opposition is verging on probable, predicting a gridlock in Ghanaian politics never seen before except for a brief period in 1979, when ruling party MPs rebelled against the Government. Because local elections are increasingly won on the basis of physical projects, political observers expect heavy demands for projects in Opposition strongholds, undermining fiscal stability unless the Government wishes to risk a failure of having its budgets rejected by the Parliament.
In the area of government appointments, the NDC has set the tone by demanding the positions of Speaker, Deputy Speaker and Majority Leader in Parliament. These roles will give it unprecedented influence on the shaping of laws and regulations. Not surprisingly, the NPP has no intention of yielding and the law grants only the High Court with the power to overturn declared Parliamentary results, something unlikely to happen before the elections for the Speaker’s chair.
But the NDC does not need these titular positions to prove a thorn in the Government’s flesh. A hung parliament is more than enough. The country’s constitution requires the President to appoint a significant proportion of Ministers from the Legislature, meaning that many ruling party MPs will often be away from parliament on ministerial duties making every close vote on any matter on which consensus across the aisle cannot be found a sure cliffhanger.
Parliament, whenever it comes under Opposition sway, can obstruct government borrowing, block ministerial appointments, censure ministers, conduct inquiries into departments and agencies and invalidate international agreements, especially in the natural resources and infrastructure arena, signed by the Government by refusing to give assent.
So how did Ghana get here and what are the implications for the country’s politics going forward?
Losing the Capital, Accra, and doing badly in some other major towns and cities mirror the usual trend across Africa where urban dwellers and Middle class citizens tend to be more disillusioned with Government high-handedness, corruption, impunity and perceived aloofness than rural dwellers.
In the past four years, the NPP, long perceived as the darling of the middle classes, seriously alienated major portions of this demographic. Running battles with civil society organisations (CSOs) over government projects perceived to be non-transparent and nepotistic, or lacking the requisite degree of elite consensus, have sapped the civic momentum on which the NPP rode to power in 2016, when it won against then President and current Opposition Leader, John Mahama, by a margin of nearly 1 million votes. A debilitating power crisis and widespread condemnation of perceived corrupt practices preceding that election had mobilised the middle class into an unprecedented confrontational force towards the latter part of the Mahama administration.
The NPP’s reversion to form in failing to consult with established civic forces no doubt cost it large parts of the urban swing vote, given as there is evidence of its base turning out quite impressively (overall turnout was 79%). That general disregard for middle class preoccupations about democratic niceties, “good governance” and “checks and balances” has been on display this week.
The government has returned a number of controversial bills it withdrew from Parliament after protests and seems bent on passing them in the lameduck phase of the outgoing Parliament rather than risk their certain defeat in the new Parliament. Foremost among these bills is the Public Universities Bill, which will give politicians wide powers to interfere in state owned universities, which dominate the tertiary sector. Many academics passionately oppose the law.
But corruption, perception of it, or anxiety over its seeming entrenchment, has been the most hotly debated of the potential causes of the seemimg desertion of some swing voters from the NPP’s fold in certain important demographics. Whilst some academics have sought to downplay the issue, their interpretation of sentiment data that seem to suggest that voters don’t prioritise it is suspect since most of these datasets don’t look at aggregate ranked-choice effects. In short, whilst corruption itself may not be number one on the list of concerns for the majority of voters, it can fuel general resentment and feature second or third on the voter priority lists across a much wider swath of the population, especially if framed in terms of general social inequity.
It therefore didn’t help matters when a few days to the elections, the Special Prosecutor, the public officer specifically tasked with fighting corruption, resigned in protest, citing interference by the President in his efforts to pursue investigations into alleged procurement infractions and suspected corruption involving high-ranking government officials.
Earlier, the Auditor General, tasked by the constitution with examining the financial records of public institutions, was forced into compulsory vacation when he attempted to investigate what he believes to be procurement infractions by the country’s pre-eminent Government Minister.
IMANI has been an active player in the emerging CSO front against what some see as rising levels of official impunity. It was very vocal when the Government attempted to force through an arrangement to hand over roughly 70% of all future earnings from minerals (apart from oil) to a special purpose vehicle slated for public listing in London. The Government-dominated Parliament rode roughshod over Opposition concerns and spent only 4 hours examining the complex set of agreements before giving the government the greenlight. In the face of loud protests from CSOs, the Special Prosecutor got involved, eventually resiging in protest.
What this shows is that the hung parliament could be a blessing to Ghana. Not in every respect, but where egregiously problematic government projects and policies are concerned. It could even contribute directly to enhancing electoral democracy by helping bring greater scrutiny to the conduct of the Electoral Commission itself.
The EC is an institution long accused of massive procurement irregularities. Despite having spent more than $60 million in the 5 years preceding the recent elections creating a biometric voters register to fight voter impersonation, it insisted on spending roughly $70 million more on acquiring a brand new system. It also decided, against stiff resistance, to compile the voters register afresh throughout the month of July, even as COVID-19 loomed large over the country. Taking into account wasted stock and inventory as a result of these decisions, the total cost to the nation exceeded $150 million.
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After analysing thousands of documents, IMANI’s firm conclusion was that the actions were driven by procurement improprieties rather than any genuine concern to improve the system, considering that at least 3 large scale elections had been run on the existing system without incident and many of the equipment were barely a year old and had been used only once or twice.
The public procurement situation in Ghana has so degenerated that the Head of the institution tasked with preventing abuse had to resign weeks to the elections, having been found to have stashed roughly $8 million into his accounts in a two-year period, mostly through depositing the cash in carrier bags.
But the EC’s situation is more egregious because the focus on procurement forces it to ignore certain longstanding problems, such as manual collation processes, an archaic results transmission system, and poorly trained staff, in favour of shiny gadgets which solve only one out of a plethora of logistical challenges, impersonation.
Were it not for Ghana’s exceptional strong democratic culture, the litany of errors seen in this election as a result of these logistical weaknesses could have had dire consequences for the peace of the country. Opposition party protests, whilst still ongoing, have been mostly subdued.
The lesson here applies to almost everything about Ghana’s predicament. Having built an enviable and robust democratic culture, the temptation to over-concentrate on the flashy rituals of elections and swearings-in is very high. But deeper institutional issues must be addressed before Ghana can cash in its democratic dividend and invest in quality human development. Top on this list is compelling the Government to conduct broad-based consultations ahead of major policy decisions and showing real good faith to implement feedback and recommendations
In that respect alone, I and many CSO Activists in Ghana motivate ourselves by arguing that we are just as important as the voters who sustain the country’s democracy.
The gift of a hung parliament and the renewed emphasis on voter concerns about good governance offer an exceptional opportunity to test new strategies for enhancing Ghana’s institutional quality. You can bet everything that we are not going to be coy about it. May Ghana prevail.
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