Ghana’s 2016 General Elections

Ghana's December 7, 2016 elections for president and parliament feature a rematch between incumbent President John Dramani Mahama and his National Democratic Congress (NDC), and the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) and its presidential contender, Nana Akufo-Addo, who is making his third run for the post. Other parties are participating, but they are all minor; roughly equal NDC and NPP political predominance have effectively created a two party system.


Ghana has held six multi-party elections since its 1992 transition from military rule. The 2016 election is widely expected to be close, and follows razor-thin NDC presidential runoff wins in 2008 and 2012. The latter election was decided in the NDC's favor by the Supreme Court after a lengthy legal process prompted by an NPP legal suit.

The 2016 polls follow problematic recent elections in several African countries and democratic backsliding in others, which many Members of Congress have monitored with concern. By contrast, Ghana—a key U.S. aid recipient—is often cited as a democratic model for other African countries. This record is attributable to generally effective performance by elections-related institutions and the electorate's acceptance of the rule of law regarding electoral processes and disputes.

Still, Ghana's elections have not been flawless, and public confidence in some elections-related institutions has reportedly fallen. Campaigning in 2016 has featured heated political rhetoric and some isolated incidents of political violence. Some observers believe the risk of wider political unrest could rise significantly, particularly if the losing party or a significant portion of the electorate rejects the election results. Such an outcome—particularly if it led to instability—would represent a setback for democracy in Africa.

Ghana's Electoral Commission (EC) has faced months of public and political party scrutiny focused on the relative integrity of the voter registry and concern over a potential repeat of problems during the 2012 election. These included various EC procedural shortcomings and biometric voter identification system breakdowns—which occurred at a rate of 19% in 2012, notably where perceived electoral fraud risks were high. These and other electoral process concerns were highlighted during Supreme Court deliberations in the NPP suit on the 2012 vote, which focused public attention on electoral issues. Public interest has remained high, in part due to opposition-led calls for a new voter registry. The Supreme Court upheld an EC decision to reject such calls, but also ordered the EC to clean up the existing registry.

Other contentious EC decisions in 2016 have included an abortive effort to introduce an electronic results transmission system; a sharp increase in the presidential candidate registration fee; and the EC's disqualification of 12 of 16 presidential candidacies, mostly on technical grounds. Several of those disqualified sued to reinstate their candidacies, three successfully; there are now seven presidential candidates. The EC also prompted press freedom concerns after introducing accreditation fees for journalists covering the election.

Campaign debate has centered on economic performance, unemployment, education, health, and alleged public mismanagement and corruption. Many believe Akufo-Addo and the NPP could oust the NDC, given widespread economic frustration. The Mahama administration has faced economic protests and strikes, and majorities in several Afrobarometer polls in recent years have rated the economy as poor. Despite such challenges for the NDC, the race is expected to be close; the NDC enjoys a large loyal support base and powers of incumbency, and has scored some recent economic successes. These include a $918 million 2015 IMF loan, a recent $750 million Eurobond sale, and a recent easing of electrical blackouts, long a source of public anger.

Conflict Risks

The closeness of the race and strong partisan polarization and competition have spurred limited, isolated acts of political intimidation and violence, notably during campaigning, voter registration, and other electoral processes. Alleged perpetrators are often so-called "macho men," groups of young toughs who support parties, often with a hope of jobs. They act as party security units and periodically interfere in electoral processes, sometimes using intimidation or violence, but they also help canvass for votes. Campaigning in 2016 by both major parties has also reportedly featured direct ethno-regional appeals to voters, a novel and potentially risky development. Historically, ethnicity has played a limited role in Ghanaian politics. Volatile, provocative rhetoric in the media has also risen.

Distrust in the EC poses a further challenge. Roughly 30% of respondents surveyed by Ghana's Center for Democratic Development (CDD) in an October 2016 poll reported having little or no trust in the EC. Such views were concentrated in traditional NPP strongholds, as were doubts that the 2016 election results will be credible and fear of possible election violence. Nationwide, however, CDD surveys have shown a rise in trust in the EC, from 51% in July to 65% in October—potentially in part due to electoral reforms announced by the EC in August—as well as widespread nationwide anticipation of and support for a peaceful outcome.

Efforts to ensure a credible, peaceful 2016 election include the creation of 17 special regional election courts and expeditious court rulings in electoral cases. A National Election Security Task Force is active across Ghana, and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), with about $1.2 million in U.S. funding, is supporting conflict prevention activities. The U.S. and UK governments have recently warned against political violence, and threatened to deny visas to those who incite it.

U.S. Assistance

The United States is providing $7.4 million in 2016 election aid. As in 2008 and 2012, this includes support for civic education and election monitoring activities by Ghana's Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO). Apart from the UNDP work noted above, U.S. aid also supports technical assistance to the EC, conflict prevention efforts, and two National Democratic Institute activities: public opinion research on electoral risks and violence, and the deployment of an international election observation mission. CODEO's work will include a parallel vote tabulation (PVT)—a statistical sampling of polling station results to verify official election results. Past PVTs in Ghana have reliably predicted election outcomes, helping to boost public trust in official returns.