It has been said that if you give the people, any people at all, a real chance to change a government, the odds are high that they will actually do so. And they will do it irrespective of the performance of the particular government they have been offered the chance to change. This is especially so when the people see that there is an alternative that they perceive as almost the same as what they are changing.
Our recent elections did not make the big bang in the world media many of us Ghanaians would have wanted. There is the feeling that if the elections had been followed by violence, death, destruction of property with the loser refusing to concede, then the rest of the world would have taken notice. Well, we all know bad news sells better than good news…
But how far have our peaceful, relatively clean, elections nudged us on towards a Western “liberal democratic” tradition? One of the things the western media says in praise of us is that we have been able to change governments through the ballot box several times. Even though democracy is more than just changing governments, they regard this as the ultimate test of our democratic traditions. It is not enough to have a constitution that provides for term limits and change of governments through the ballot box. This scenario must actually be seen to be taking place – and regularly too. It is this aspect of our “western democratic” practice that is most visible to the outside world since the workings of our internal institutions (these are not doing too well) are not easily seen.
South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution has been held up as one of the best liberal-democratic ones on the continent. But, in practice, the ANC has dominated the political landscape and results of national elections are in no doubt ahead of the balloting. Botswana is another country held up as a democratic example. But even there, one party has dominated since independence making the country a de facto one party state. The South Africans may not change governments frequently but their judicial system, local government administrations and other institutions probably work better than ours. One wonders which is better: frequent peaceful changes of government or stronger state institutions. The ideal situation will be to achieve both. A discussion of how this can be done will require another article.
The pattern has now been set at an eight-year turnover that coincides with the presidential term limits set by the constitution. We are yet to break that pattern.
The 2016 elections scored two firsts. It marked the first time in the history of our nation that the people, freely and fairly, voted out a sitting head of state whose name was on the ballot paper. It also marked the first time we voted for a man as old as Akufo-Addo. At 72, he will be the oldest head of state we ever had. In power, he will be older than two of our living past heads of state – Rawlings and Mahama. If he wins a second term, he will be 80 when he leaves office.
Mahama escaped becoming a real one-term president since he served out the remaining of Mills’ term. We are yet to score a genuine one term presidency even though Mahama’s loss of power is as good as being one.
Mahama’s loss should not really surprise us. He could have lost even if he was doing passably okay. We should not forget that the last time around, he won only by a narrow margin and Akufo-Addo was within spitting distance of the presidency. Akufo-Addo’s clear victory this time may not really be the ringing endorsement that his supporters will want us to believe (he has not done anything that is to be endorsed) but it was certainly a rejection of Mahama with Akufo-Addo being the default beneficiary in the absence of other credible alternatives. What many Ghanaians greeted with applause is the change itself, not what they have changed to. We seem to be putting all our democratic pride in our ability to change a government. But we should be doing more than that.
The EC Chair and her team are being praised for doing a good job. Perhaps she, genuinely, did well. Such things are difficult to tell unless you are familiar with the intricacies. But one thing is certain: she was aided by the margin of victory. If the margin had been as narrow as the last time around, the losers would have raised hell against her even if she had behaved exactly like she did. The country also benefited by the clear margin of victory: post-election violence was muted.
For me, there were only two downsides to these elections. The first is our reversion to an ethnic based voting pattern. Akufo-Addo won six predominantly Akan regions. The ones that Mahama won were non-Akan or had tiny minorities of Akans. The results can be seen as an “Akans versus the rest of us” contest. Politics in our country is still very much tribal based. This development should worry us more than it seems to be doing. Some are actually rejoicing over it – this unfortunate backside of our progress. As it is, Nkrumah’s CPP, especially in its immediate pre- and post-independence period, remains the only truly non-ethnic mass-based party Ghana has ever had.
The incoming president has promised to woo Volta Region (read: Ewes) until he marries her. He has not given any indication how he is going to do it. The reason why Ewes do not vote for NPP (but will readily vote for parties led by northerners or even Fantes) is an attitudinal one on the part of both Ewes and Akans. It will require a change in some deep seated beliefs on both sides. It is not something that can change within four years or by the gift of a few golden trinkets to the love object. It will be interesting to see how Akufo-Addo will bridge this gap.
The second downside of the elections is the continuing emasculation of third party alternatives. I do not know if this is exactly a bad thing but it does seem our country cannot sustain two main parties and a somewhat third strong one that can keep the two big ones on their toes. Those who do not like either NPP or NDC have no place to turn to and, consequently, no voice.
The constitution allows Mahama to stand again. He is a relatively young man. If he were a civil servant, he would still have two years to his pension. But I do not think he should come back. He will never be in want of money since the constitution provides a mouth-watering gratuity in addition to his pension. And he will not be idle. Apart from engaging in all the things that former heads of state do, he will need time to complete the series of memoirs he had alluded to having completed the first one just before he became head of state.
Akufo-Addo still has many detractors who are not convinced he will be able to solve our problems. But it will be most unpatriotic for anyone to not want him to succeed just to prove a point. So we shall all wish him well and if he succeeds, we shall forgive him for everything – even for losing his law certificate. But if we do not see that things have gotten manifestly better, we have the chance to make him a true one-term president as we march on to establish a truly “liberal democratic tradition” – one that will also, hopefully, bring about the strengthening of our other institutions.