Ghana Election, Test Of Democratic ReputationDecember 7th, 2012 12:20 pm Associated Press
ACCRA, Ghana (AP) — Voters in Ghana lined up as early as 2 a.m. on Friday to select their next president and parliament in a ballot that is expected to mark the sixth transparent election in this West African nation, known as a beacon of democracy in a tumultuous region.
Ghana, with a population of 25 million, was once a troubled nation that suffered five coups and decades of stagnation, before turning a corner in the 1990s. It is now a pacesetter for the continent’s efforts to become democratic — no other country in the region has had so many elections deemed free and fair, a reputation voters hold close to their hearts.
With the race for the presidency expected to be close, the turnout at the polls was high. Some precincts were serving lines that were 1,000-people deep. Many polls opened late because material had not arrived from the electoral commission, but voters waited patiently to cast their ballots for one of the eight presidential contenders, including President John Dramani Mahama and his main challenger Nana Akufo-Addo.
In line, many said they would not speak about who they were voting for to help maintain peace.
“They say we should not talk about who we are voting for on election day, especially not at a polling station,” said 44-year-old Jonathan Akrong.
The incumbent Mahama, a former vice president, was catapulted into office in July after the unexpected death of former President John Atta Mills. Before becoming vice president in 2009, the 54-year-old served as a minister and a member of parliament. He’s also written an acclaimed biography, recalling Ghana’s troubled past, called “My First Coup d’Etat.”
His main challenger is Nana Akufo-Addo, a former foreign minister and the son of one of Ghana’s previous presidents. In 2008, he lost the last presidential election to Mills by less than 1 percent. Both leading candidates are trying to make the case that they will use the nation’s newfound oil wealth to help the poor.
Besides being one of the few established democracies in the region, Ghana also has the fastest-growing economy. But a deep divide still exists between those benefiting from the country’s oil, cocoa and mineral wealth and those left behind financially.
In an interview on the eve of the vote, Akufo-Addo told The Associated Press that the first thing he will do if elected is begin working on providing free high school education for all. “It’s a matter of great concern to me,” he said, adding that he plans to use the oil wealth to educate the population, industrialize the economy and create better jobs for Ghanaians.
Policy-oriented and intellectual, Akufo-Addo is favored by the young and urbanized voters. He was educated in England and comes from a privileged family. The ruling party has depicted him as elitist.
“The idea that merely because you are born into privilege that automatically means you are against the welfare of the ordinary people, that’s nonsense,” he said.
Ghana had one of the fastest growing economies in the world in 2011. Allegations of corruption against the ruling party are rife. Akufo-Addo said that if elected, he would not be able to weed out corruption in the government overnight. “It’s a long fight,” he said. “But we build the institutions that can fight it.”
Many voters are expecting to see a faster improvement in their daily lives given recent economic growth. But voters seem almost evenly split over who can best deliver on the promise of development.
Kojo Mabwa said that he is voting for Akufo-Addo, because he is impressed by his promise of free education. He dismissed critics that say the project is too ambitious. “He said he can do free education. They say he can’t do it. But he can!” said the 47-year-old. “There is money. You see, (the ruling party) has done nothing for us. They are misusing our money.”
Paa Kwesi, a 30-year-old systems analyst, said he doesn’t think Akufo-Addo is making promises he can keep.
“He says he can do free education, but you have to crawl before you can walk. It’s not possible,” he said.
Many analysts believe Mahama and Akufo-Addo are neck-and-neck.
Results are expected to be announced by Sunday. If no one wins an absolute majority, a second round of voting will be held on December 28. All candidates have signed a peace pact and have promised to accept the results of Friday’s poll.
Associated Press writer Francis Kokutse contributed to this report from Accra, Ghana.