Ghana heads for two-horse presidential vote

Ghana Election

People wait to vote at a polling station in Kibi, Ghana during a past presidential election.

Photo credit: File | AFP

Ghanaians will go to the polls on Monday in a heated contest that will revive old rivalries between incumbent President Nana Akufo-Addo and his predecessor John Mahama.

Although 10 other candidates, including three women, are vying for the nation's top job, the vote is a two-horse race between the two foes who will be slugging it out for the third time.

More than 17 million Ghanaians are registered to vote, half between the ages of 18 and 35, in the west African nation's eighth consecutive poll since returning to democracy nearly 30 years ago.

The election is coming at a time of the coronavirus pandemic which has disrupted but hasn't stopped campaigning by Akufo-Addo's New Patriotic Party (NPP) and Mahama's National Democratic Congress (NDC).

"There are party events and activity everywhere to drum up support, the airwaves are full of party songs, but we are not seeing mass rallies as usual," Kojo Asante, director for advocacy and policy engagement at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development said.

The virus -- which has infected over 51,000 and killed more than 300 in Ghana since March -- is not expected to deter voters and preventive measures such as hand sanitising stations near polling booths are planned.

The race is expected to be very close. Independent polls have predicted a slim win for the incumbent, while the NPP's majority in the 275-member parliament is expected to drop. 

In 2012, Mahama narrowly defeated Akufo-Addo with 50.7 percent of the vote and in 2016, Akufo-Addo beat Mahama with 53.8 percent of votes.

Potential for disputed outcome

Many Ghanaians are worried that "vigilantes" hired by parties and deployed to provide security for politicians could cause problems at polling stations.

Until now, Ghana has always managed to contain simmers of post-electoral violence and transition largely peacefully, unlike many countries in the region.

But there have been pre-election clashes and disagreements over the neutrality of the electoral commission, in particular on the compilation of the new voters register. 

"Tensions between the two main parties haven't subsided and the stage is set for a potentially disputed outcome," Sam Kwarkye, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies wrote in a report.

The police said more than 62,000 personnel have been deployed to ensure a hitch-free exercise while the leading candidates would be made to sign a "peace pact".

Asante is "cautiously optimistic" that the election will be peaceful, and welcomes the large pool of international and local election observers.

"Everybody wants the Ghana election to go well. We already have too many trouble spots in the region to deal with."

Cloud of corruption

A key producer and exporter of cocoa, oil and gold, Ghana saw its economy severely hit by the pandemic and the Akufo-Addo administration is struggling to cope. 

Growth in the nation of 30 million people is expected to fall to 0.9 percent in 2020, the lowest in 30 years, according to the IMF, and a steep decline from 6.5 percent expansion in 2019.

Before Covid-19, the economy had been battered by rising debt servicing, a weak currency and rising inflation.

If Akufo-Addo has been praised for his handling of the pandemic as well as on education and electricity, he has disappointed some in one regard.

The 76-year-old was elected four years ago as an anti-graft crusader, but according to a 2019 survey by Afrobarometer, 53 percent of Ghanaians say the level of corruption in the country has risen.

Corruption is a difficult issue for Mahama, 62, to latch on, as he himself left office under a cloud of corruption allegations. 

He has also been criticised for poor economic decisions and racking up unsustainable debts, issues that continue to affect the country to this day. 

But the skilled communicator has pushed through the criticism, making ambitious promises to build infrastructure and modernise the country.

Another bold move by Mahama was picking former education minister Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang as running mate. 

Opoku-Agyemang is the first woman on the ticket of a major Ghanaian political party and she is also native of the Central region, one of the key swing voting regions.

Akufo-Addo, as expected, opted for continuity, with current Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia as running mate.

The results of the nation-wide vote could come in just 24 hours after polls close.