Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Election Fever . . . in Ghana

Campaign Billboard in Kumasi, Ghana

The Perfect Gift
Before I left for Africa, I raced around looking for a place to buy Obama buttons to give as small tokens of thanks. They’re an enormous hit. I felt bad when I didn’t have enough for all of the students at the University of Ghana who wanted one.

Will the U.S. Election Results Influence Ghana’s Elections?
Ghana is holding its presidential and parliamentary elections simultaneously just one month after we vote in the United States. The two dominant parties are the New Patriotic Party (NPP), concluding its second four-year term in power, and the National Democratic Congress (NDC), which governed from 1992-2000 and badly want to return to power. President John K.A. Kufuor must step down as he is concluding his second term.

President Kufuor of the NPP recently paid a state visit to Washington—President Bush held one of his few state dinners in his honor. Some think that Ghana’s voters will return the NPP to power if the Republicans triumph in November but turn to the NDC if the Democrats win the presidency in the U.S. The NDC flagbearer—Ghanaian for leader or presidential candidates is Professor John Atta Mills. He is set to become the Williams Jennings Bryan of Ghana if he loses. This is his third consecutive bid for the presidency.

Ethnicity and Elections in Ghana
The plague of African democracy is that elections often resemble an ethnic census with voters from each group supporting one candidate or party en masse. The recent elections in Kenya which led to fierce interethnic violence are a classic example. Escaping the ethnic trap has been difficult in many divided societies but perhaps been an especially difficult challenge for African democracies.

Ghana is not an exception in terms of the importance of language and ethnicity. Like most sub-Saharan Africa states, Ghana contains many different groups who often speak different languages. In Ghana, the Ewe of the Volta Region in the East vote at very high rates for the NDC. In contrast, the Ashanti in the Ashanti Region vote lopsidedly for the NPP.

Ghana may have managed to establish an increasingly stable democracy despite the continuing salience of ethnicity. For starters, not all Ashanti vote for the NPP despite that region being the party’s base and home to a welter of safe NPP parliamentary seats. Moreover, neither the Ewe nor the Ashanti are populous enough to win the elections alone and much reach out to other regions of the country.

Neither party is able to build a firm majority based on consolidating support from related ethnic groups. The Akan include a variety of groups, including the Ashanti, which speak closely related languages—as close as British and American English according to people I met here—but the NPP has not been able to get nearly as consistent or high support from non-Ashanti Akan. For example, the Fante who live in Western and Central regions along Ghana’s coast are swing voters.

The election system may encourage parties to move beyond their ethnic base. Ghana uses the same single-member district system as the U.S. While parties can win lots of seats in their home region based on an ethnic majority, they need to attract support in a variety of regions to gain a parliamentary majority and to win the presidency.

The result is unique within Africa. In many other African democracies, there is a dominant party. In Ghana, there are two major parties in addition to a number of smaller parties. In 2000, the NDC lost and had to turn power over the NPP. Both the NPP and the NDC are highly competitive and have a reasonable shot at winning the upcoming elections. Many think that there will have to be a runoff in the presidential election as the Convention People’s Party (CPP) candidate is attracting some support.

Ghana’s success at holding a series of democratic elections—this is the fifth since the last military government—with a successful transfer of power needs to be examined more. Why has democracy taken root here? Is it the electoral system? Does Ghana have a stronger sense of being a nation than other African states despite ethnic divisions? Regardless of its answers, Ghana’s success is once again making the country a leader in Africa.