April 15, 2016

While tensions are expected to rise ahead of Ghana’s 2016 presidential election, the contest is unlikely to undermine the country’s strong reputation for political stability. The race will be defined by social and economic issues and, while it will be bitterly fought, it is unlikely the polls will be boycotted or that the military will interfere with the democratic process. Regardless of the outcome, Ghana’s continued political stability will depend on the victor managing the expectations of a burgeoning middle class, increasingly frustrated by corruption and slow economic growth. The country’s reputation for transparency and investor confidence, compared with its neighbors, is threatened by growing perceptions of petty corruption and suspicions of high-level malfeasance.


The December contest is expected to maintain Ghana’s strong reputation for free and fair elections. Closely fought presidential races have routinely pitted the New Patriots’ Party (NPP) against the National Democratic Congress (NDC) since Ghana’s transition to democratic civilian rule in 1992. Polls have resulted in a peaceful transfer of power every two terms, returning the NDC to office in 2008. This year, the election is expected to see incumbent NDC President John Dramani Mahama face stiff competition from the NPP’s Nana Akufo-Addo.


Elections in Ghana have become increasingly tight, and disputes over the results have, at times, led to allegations of fraud. While international observers declared the polls free and fair, the opposition disputed Mahama’s 2012 victory, and accused the independent Electoral Commission (EC) of bias towards the NDC. A case brought by the NPP to the Supreme Court disputing the election was ultimately rejected. Ahead of the 2016 election, the NPP has accused the EC of complicity in producing a flawed electoral register. Tensions regarding the voter list have already sparked protests, and the NPP would likely leverage the issue to dispute the 2016 polls should it lose.


Although Ghana is split between a richer, more-populated Christian south, and a poorer, sparsely populated Muslim north, ethnic and religious differences are neither divisive nor decisive in national politics. Successful presidential campaigns require votes from all communities, and candidates will often choose running mates whose backgrounds balance their own. Campaigns instead focus upon social and economic policy issues.


The election will put Mahama’s record to the test; a protracted energy crisis will be a fulcrum for voter frustrations. Ghana’s rapid economic growth under former NPP President John Kufor has not been matched by infrastructural investments, resulting in widespread power cuts. The restrained growth resulting from the power crisis coincides with the rising expectations of an emergent middle class. The opposition will also draw attention to rising unemployment, significant inflation, and unpopular austerity measures. Both parties will be expected to commit themselves to transparency, as state corruption is a growing concern for voters; allegations of fraudulent sales of state assets and procurements have been leveled at both NPP and NDC governments


In 2015, Ghana was placed 56th in Transparency International (TI)’s 168-country corruption index, and has maintained a near identical mid-range score since 2012. However, the country came second in a 2015 report examining the growth of corruption in Africa; over 70 percent of respondents to a perception survey believed that corruption had increased over the past year. More than 20 percent confirmed that they had encountered corruption when using a public service; revealingly, courts and the police were reported as the institutions most likely to request bribes.


The survey may have been swayed by a September 2015 corruption scandal that affected the highest levels of the judiciary, and resulted in 20 judges being dismissed for soliciting bribes; several suspended High Court judges remain under investigation. Despite the scale of the inquiry, the committee’s prompt and decisive action demonstrated clear political willingness to publicly confront corruption.


Nonetheless, concerns over the management of Ghana’s hydrocarbon resources have become a highly significant issue in relation to the 2016 election, as the winner will determine how oil revenue will shape the country’s future. Currently, Ghana’s Jubilee Field is the only active production site, but two others are expected to come online in mid-2016 and 2017. The country expects a surge in government income from this new industry, but risks being overwhelmed without a clear regulatory framework or transparent accounting.


Accusations of inappropriate contracts with oil field developers, and questions over government procurements, have already emerged. Specifically, concerns have been raised over the selling of concessions prior to the formalization of a legal framework to determine the procurement process. An Exploration and Production Bill, first drafted in 2010 to replace legislation approved over 30 years ago, has been repeatedly delayed. The bill has also been criticized for allowing the petroleum minister to override a competitive bidding process, failing to meet international transparency standards, and not clarifying the role of the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation.


Many Ghanaians see Nigeria as a possible specter of their country’s future, where national wealth is diverted into the hands of an elite few, a stagnated economy prevents the growth of a middle class, and public services barely function. There are also valid concerns that Ghana’s weak regulatory framework will be unable to account for the expected surge in oil revenues transparently, which could catalyze corruption. The next president will be expected to provide strong leadership to stimulate sustained, and transparent, economic growth. However, historically low oil prices will likely motivate greater scrutiny, which may limit the opportunity for corruption.


While Mahama’s re-election will have to overcome significant popular frustration, the NDC’s unified backing of his candidacy, combined with the advantage of incumbency, casts him as an authoritative figure. A historic precedent of transfer of power every two terms gives rise to expectations that favor the opposition; however, infighting and disarray in the NPP are undermining Akufo-Addo’s credibility and may prevent him from running an effective nationwide campaign. Regardless of the electoral outcome, Ghana is likely to remain an example of stability in Africa, with tensions ahead of the election, symptomatic of legitimate political competition.


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