Yesterday was Election Day here in Ghana and it was an interesting thing to observe, even from the distant, uninvolved edges where I stood straining to pick up bits of conversation thrown off in the streets, watching the mood at the polls that I drove by in my Osu neighborhood.
Looking at Ghana’s recent political history, this election – particularly if it remains peaceful – is fairly significant. While the country gained independence from the British in 1957, the period between 1966 and 1992 brought a series of coups and military governments. J.J. Rawlings, who first assumed power through one of these military coups in 1981 restored multi-party politics in the country in 1992, and peacefully stepped down from power after two elective four-year terms in 2000. By all signs the outgoing President – John Agyekum Kufour – will also step down after governing for his two elective terms at the end of this year and whoever wins the outcome of yesterday’s polls will take up residence in the just completed Presidential Palace. Depending on how you count it, this election will be the second (or third) real transition of power and fifth election overall since the country regained elective politics 16 years ago. If Ghana avoids replicating the Kenyan story and the losing party bows out gracefully, this election seemingly does a great deal to institutionalize a tradition of democratic politics in this country.
Elections are always on December 7 (aka Iris Day), and this year it fell on both a Sunday and a major Muslim holiday. Despite these potential deterrents, people seemed to get out to vote starting early in the morning. The polling stations that I saw in my neighborhood and on the TV look like the pictures I took, posted here – a cardboard voting “booth,” an ink pad and a plastic ballot box. Voters stamp their thumbprint on the ballot, which is printed with the names, pictures, and party symbols of the candidates – both Presidential and Parliamentary – and deposit it into the box. (While voters are supposed to enjoy privacy, the outdoor affair seemed to make it fairly easy for a watcher to discern someone’s pick, which I imagine could cause some problems in small communities where politics is personal.) The entire occasion is presided over by officials from Ghana’s Election Commission (EC) dressed in blue, and I also heard rumor of quite a few international election observers poking around the country.
The coolest part of the day is when polls close at 5 pm and ballots are counted in the open air at the polling station itself. I went out to see the counting at the poll across from my apartment and there were about 100 people clustered around as one of the EC officials held up and then counted aloud each ballot one by one. I was impressed by this procedure: we talk about transparency in government, but it was neat to witness such a concrete example of it. In all of the polling stations in all the 230 constituencies throughout the country, voters could watch an ostensibly unbiased third-party official count the votes held within the ballot box that had been sitting untampered in the open air all day. It would seem to obviate grounds for major disputes about foul play, at least when it comes to vote tallying itself (vote buying, campaign finance, and intimidation may be another story). In my area, the ruling government – NPP - won the Presidential race by just 1 vote, but the cheers of NDC supporters dominated the crowd when this opposition party took the MP race.
The government has 72 hours to count the vote, and as national numbers are still being aggregated there is not year a clear winner today. Still, the election seemed to have gone off peacefully. People were worried not so much about massive government instability as about small skirmishes in areas where there are preexisting tensions, such as between ethnic groups or politicized youth. Party affiliation runs deep in Ghana, and it seems like it can be a source for major personal affront in some contexts. Many people stayed around the house to avoid any such “confusion.” If no party wins 50% + 1 of the vote, there will be a run-off election in 21 days. While it is partially back to business as usual, the sound of radio news rises through the noise of the neighborhoods today and you can feel where attention is fixed.