In the wake of national elections Dec. 7, Ghana’s president, John Mahama, conceded to challenger Nana Akufo-Addo. The election marks the first time an incumbent has stood for reelection and lost since this West African nation became independent in 1957. Power has changed hands between parties before, but only when the sitting president was standing down as a result of term limits and the ruling party was running a first-time candidate. Political scientists see peaceful handoffs of power like this as an important sign of democratic success.
This election had other markers of success as well. For instance, this year, Ghana introduced measures to record and verify the votes at each polling station to protect the process of counting and collating votes from fraud. Overall, the 2016 election represents “another step forward” in Ghana’s movement toward genuine democracy.
But problems remain. During the campaign, a widely shared video showed Mahama allegedly “buying votes” — handing out money to women at a market. After another set of legitimate and peaceful elections, what does that video reveal about elections in Ghana?
Ghanaians accept some troubling practices as part of how democracy works
As part of a broader project on the impact of elections in Africa, we surveyed Ghanaians in September 2015, and then conducted a similar survey of Ugandans in December 2015. Fully 71 percent of respondents in that survey said they prefer democracy to any other form of government — in line with the findings of research by Robert Mattes and Michael Bratton.
But the results suggest that despite Ghana’s impressive experience of open and competitive elections, Ghanaians accept some problematic electoral practices as much as, if not more than, their counterparts in Uganda.
For example, 43 percent of Ghanaians — and 41 percent of Ugandans — answered that bribing voters was either “not wrong at all” or was “wrong but should not be punished.” Similarly, 76 percent of Ghanaians — compared with 72 percent of Ugandans — felt that politicians should not be punished for directing development projects toward areas that support them.
Ghanaians held other undemocratic opinions as well — and in greater percentages than Ugandans. Take for example, opinions on the use of queue voting, a procedure in which voters line up in public behind their favored candidate and are denied a secret ballot. While only 18 percent of Ugandans said queue voting would be acceptable, 39 percent of Ghanaians said it would be acceptable.
These differences are surprising. While Ghana has been heralded as a democratic success, Uganda is what political scientists call an “electoral authoritarian” regime. In Uganda, power has typically changed hands through violence. By contrast, in Ghana, the ruling party has handed over power after losing in several elections; namely in 2000, 2008 and now 2016. By contrast, a majority of Ugandans do not believe that voting can lead to a transfer of power — which is unsurprising, since it has not happened there.
If Ghanaians don’t hold stronger democratic values, the implications are troubling
Why doesn’t the citizenry of one of the continent’s democratic success stories hold stronger democratic values, and how much does this matter?
Anja Osei has argued that Ghana’s democracy has been sustained by a distinctive elite consensus based on high levels of trust. If this is accurate, it suggests that to some extent, democratization may have occurred despite, rather than because of, the attitudes of ordinary citizens.
The implications of our research for Ghana’s future are worrying. Our findings suggest that, lacking supportive social norms in some areas, the country’s impressive progress depends heavily on political elites voluntarily policing their own behavior.
Why is this problematic? There are good reasons to doubt the sincerity of Ghana’s dominant political parties when it comes to clamping down on vote-buying and electoral fraud.
The ruling party’s response to the allegations of voter bribery was revealing. Mahama’s chief of staff said the video was doctored; a government minister said that the president was simply compensating a young street vendor whose wares had been trampled by party supporters. Meanwhile, a senior figure in the NDC said there was nothing wrong or unusual in giving out money.
Initially, the opposition party insisted that the video was evidence of electoral manipulation — part of incumbents’ systematic attempt to buy a continued stay in power. A few weeks before the video was circulated, the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD) released the results of a survey in which 51 percent of respondents said they thought that the ruling party was giving out bribes.
However, the respondents to the CDD survey believed that the opposition was giving out gifts and money to voters as well. Partly as a result, the opposition soon fell silent about the Mahama market incident.
Many people say that activists from both parties, in this campaign as in previous years, routinely give out gifts. These are not just T-shirts, caps and party paraphernalia, given away in democracies around the world. During our fieldwork in Ghana, activists and candidates routinely accused their opponents of buying votes. Some acknowledged, sometimes more or less in the same breath, that they themselves “shared” items — anything from rubber boots, cutlasses and cash to prepaid electricity meters.
Although vote-buying makes for sensational headlines, our survey reveals that many politicians and voters do not consider giving gifts to voters to be an illegitimate act. In fact, many voters expect or even demand such practices. As Kwesi Pratt Jr., the managing editor of the Insight Newspaper, recently argued, in the Ghanaian context, such gifts do not really amount to “bribes” at all.
Even if Ghanaians believe that it’s okay for politicians to give gifts during campaigns, research shows that such practices have problematic consequences. Gift-giving during the campaign makes people forget that MPs are not just sources of patronage but are also supposed to debate legislation and scrutinize government. It encourages voters to judge a politician’s performance by what Americans call “pork”: whether they have built a clinic or paid for school fees in someone’s home town.
And that has unhealthy consequences for accountability, because it encourages voters to turn a blind eye to where the money to fund these activities has come from.
Nic Cheeseman is associate professor of African politics at Oxford University and the author of “Democracy in Africa.”
Gabrielle Lynch is an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick.
Justin Willis is a professor of history at Durham University.