Voters in Ghana will head to the polls on Monday to pick the country’s next president, in what is expected to be a tight race between incumbent Nana Akufo-Addo and his predecessor, John Mahama.
The two longtime rivals, who are squaring off for the third straight time as they seek a second and final term, are widely seen as the two frontrunners in a crowded field of 12 candidates.
Campaigning has largely focused on the economy, infrastructure development and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fight against corruption has also featured prominently in the lead-up to the election during which the political rivalry that has for the last decade defined the campaigns of both Akufo-Addo, of the centrist New Patriotic Party (NPP), and Mahama, of the left-leaning National Democratic Congress (NDC), was largely on display.
“The candidates have spent more time exchanging words rather than focusing on the challenges facing the people,” said Michael Opoku, a 54-year-old trader in Kumasi, Ghana’s second city.
“I want a better Ghana that will guarantee my future. I am not concerned so much about voting for a political party but my vote will be for those who are out to make a difference when elected into office,” he added.
Despite the heightened political tensions, the two leading candidates on Friday signed a pact for good conduct and peaceful elections at a ceremony in the capital, Accra, that was attended by traditional and religious leaders, as well as international observers.
Monday’s vote will be the eighth since Ghana’s first step towards multiparty democracy in 1992. The country has a strong record of smooth transitions of power and Ghanaians are hoping it will build on its reputation as one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.
The NPP and the NDC have peacefully exchanged power several times during the past decades but friction is high this year amid opposition allegations over the independence of the electoral commission. Last month, Mahama alleged that the body set out to organise “a flawed election” and threatened to reject the results.
“Recent events under the current administration have given many anxious moments of doubt about this administration’s ability to deliver a peaceful, violence-free election,” Mahama, 62, said at his speech during Friday’s peace pact-signing ceremony.
Electoral officials have dismissed the opposition’s accusations of attempting to rig the elections.
“There is already so much tension on the ground, especially from the opposition, about the likely outcome of the election. The Electoral Commission should be fair to all,” said Cynthia Ekow, a 29-year-old student in Accra.
For his part, Akufo-Addo, 76, promised that the will of the electorate will be respected.
“We believe in elections, and I am happy to give my word that we shall accept the verdict of the people of Ghana,” he said at the ceremony. “Above all, I pledge that the peace, unity and safety of Ghana will be our primary consideration.”
Professor Kwesi Aning, who is the director of the Faculty of Academic Affairs and Research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, said concerns about the period after the election were real.
“Though a peace pact has been signed to deal, especially with the fallouts from the results, work needs to be done to sensitive grassroots supporters about the law and the need to respond to disputes legal,” he said.
“The onus is on party leaders and structures. From history, there is a wide chasm between the flowery words of peace and the speed with which war drums are beaten when there are electoral disputes.”
Some 63,000 military and paramilitary officers have been deployed across the country to maintain peace during the electoral process and respond to any potential unrest.
Ghana is a major cocoa, gold and oil producer. But its fast-growing economy took a hit during the coronavirus pandemic, deepening analysts’ concerns about high public debt levels.
In April, the country received $1bn in emergency funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to address the impact of the pandemic, and the economy is now projected to grow by as much as 1 percent.
Both Akufo-Addo and Mahama have promised to improve infrastructure despite the country’s rising debt profile.
In recent weeks, Akufo-Addo has emphasised his government’s record on education and access to electricity and pledged to build a new airport in the country’s central region.
Mahama has underlined the public works completed during his four years in office (2012-2016) and promised to increase infrastructure spending if re-elected. He has also promised to provide free laptops to university students.
The winner of the election will be decided by a simple majority for a candidate who secures more than 50 percent of votes. A runoff election will be held within 21 days if no candidate meets the threshold of votes cast.
In contrast to previous elections, results could be announced by the electoral commission within 24 hours after voting at about 39,000 polling stations spread across the country ends.
“We are promoting some efficiency into the system. We have worked with our numbers and we have a duration within which the results should be transmitted,” electoral commission chairwoman Jean Mensa recently told journalists in the capital, Accra. “Because of the efficiency we have introduced into the processes, we should be able to declare results within 24 hours,” she said.
“When results are announced on time, it reduces speculation about the outcome of the elections,” Ekow, the student, believed.
Among the dozen candidates vying for the presidency are three women, including Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, the widow of former President Jerry Rawlings.
A total of 275 parliamentary seats will also be for grabs in Monday’s polls.
Still, observers do not expect power to shift from either the NPP or the NDC anytime soon.
Anning said Ghanaians will be voting “primarily for peace”.
“The narrative is that change has not come and if change in terms of improvements in people’s lives is difficult to attain, then they prefer peace at all cost.