In 1992, Ghana returned to multiparty democracy having followed a turbulent political trajectory since its independence in 1957. One of the first countries in Sub-Sahara Africa to achieve independence, Ghana became a ´beacon of hope´ for other African countries under colonial rule. Today, the successful consolidation of multiparty democracy in Ghana is proving that democracy can work in Africa. Now that Ghana is on the road to becoming a middle-income country, it also demonstrates that democracy and economic development can go hand in hand.

Ghana’s 1992 constitution introduced an American-style presidency with a 230 member parliament whose members are elected through a simple majority vote. Four parties have since been elected to parliament, including two large parties of almost equal size – the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP) – and two smaller parties, the Convention People’s Party (CPP) and People’s National Convention (PNC). The NDC ruled until 2000 when the NPP took over the reigns of government in a peaceful alternation of power. This transfer of power between parties – which in the African context is still an unique feature – was repeated in 2008-09 when NDC won the elections and took over power from NPP.

Political adversaries share experiences
At a meeting between the leaders of the four political parties during a dinner in Accra on Monday March 1, 2010, stories were told about how difficult it had been for the NDC leadership to find themselves in opposition in 2000. Now, having experienced eight years in government, the NPP leadership finds itself in a similar position. Naturally, the NDC leaders were beaming with pride to be back at the helm of the state.

These political adversaries shared their experiences that evening with a striking sense of humour. What was even more impressive and memorable was the recognition across the board that the alternation of power was after all not such a bad thing for Ghana. Together with the experience gained, the parties have now recognised that although painful for the losing party, it is for the good of the country. Listening to the interactions between the political leaderships of governing and opposition parties, it became clear that this crucial democratic practice has gained a heartening degree of institutionalization in Ghana.

This level of democratic development has not come about without hard work and its further consolidation will require continued concerted effort. Upon its establishment ten years ago, the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) established partnership relations with the four political parties represented in Parliament, as well as the Electoral Commission and other institutions in Ghana. Recognizing that political parties have a special responsibility to ensure that the political process transpires peacefully and in accordance with the constitutional provisions, and that sustainable democracy has to be built from within, NIMD invited its Ghanaian partners to make an analysis of the performance of their democracy and how it could be improved.

Ghana Political Parties Programme
Following initial consultations, the political parties decided to establish the Ghana Political Parties Programme (GPPP), a programme that is supported by NIMD. Subsequently, for the first time, the chairpersons of the political parties publicly met and shook hands. The media coverage of this event signalled to the Ghanaian citizens a new era in which political leaders were willing to cooperate in the interests of the country. Since then, the party chairpersons have met regularly to discuss issues of national interest and to act when potential issues of conflict threaten to escalate into violence.

The General Secretaries of the political parties and their policy advisers also meet every month to discuss the progress of the common programme and to share experiences in the programme activities aimed at the institutionalization of the individual parties. Over the years, this has led to the establishment of a political culture in which the prevailing winner-takes-all attitude has been moderated by a process whereby politicians learn, to quote the former CPP Secretary General, “to disagree with each other without becoming disagreeable”.

The parties decided not to establish a new organization for the overall management of the GPPP but to entrust this to the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) of Ghana, a professional institute with an impartial track record. Interestingly, the parties also decided to establish an Advisory Council of eminent Ghanaians, consisting of church leaders, traditional chiefs, members of the Council of State and women’s organizations, to provide guidance to the programme and offer mediation in the case of disputes within the programme. Other common activities have been open to the participation of political parties registered under Ghanaian law but not elected to parliament.

The infrastructure for the programme has worked very well and has ensured full ownership of the process and a high level of political will to advance democracy in Ghana. In the early years, the goals were to create a more level playing field for free and fair elections in 2004, to improve the perception of political parties of the Ghanaians and to assist the political parties to institutionalize in-between elections.

Elections: Code of Conduct
Political parties took the initiative to develop a new Code of Conduct for the elections to which they all signed up. An innovative feature of the Code was that for the first time it included an enforcement mechanism. Also, political parties were provided with a policy officer and an office with desk and computer to enhance the capacity for policy-making and communications. In the run-up to the 2004 elections, policy debates between the political leaders were facilitated together with joined meetings for followers of the different political parties to introduce a higher level of issue orientation to the election campaigns.

Following a post mortem evaluation of the elections in 2004, the partnership embarked on a full scale analysis by the political parties of what the Ghanaians referred to as the ‘gap’ in the democratic performance of Ghana. Two years of deliberations and consultations, involving 317 political institutions and civil society organisations, resulted in the adoption of the first Ghanaian Democratic Consolidation Strategy Paper (DSCP). This longer-term strategy was accepted by all four political parties ahead of the 2008 parliamentary and presidential elections. All parties committed to implementing the reform proposals contained in the strategy regardless of who won the elections.

In the run-up to the 2008 elections, the GPPP, with support from different partners, organized the first televised presidential debates in Ghanaian history as well as the vice-presidential debates. This was a further contribution to the redefinition of the political debate as a contest about policies.

The NIMD-supported programme played another major role, not much publicised, at the height of the electoral campaign. The presidential contest in December 2008 was contested over two rounds. In the second and final round, the opposition candidate Prof J.A. Mills won with only the smallest of margins over the candidate of the ruling NPP party, Mr Akufo-Addo. The difference amounted to less than 0.5% of the vote. Tensions were high: would the governing party accept defeat? At that time, the GPPP organized the elders advising the programme to issue a public statement calling for calm and for people to respect the verdict of the Electoral Commission, thus avoiding a potential Kenya scenario. Also, some of the elder eminent NPP statesmen counselled the NPP party leaders to accept the election results, paving the way for the NPP presidential candidate to accept defeat. These timely and appropriate interventions went a long way towards helping mitigate the tensions.

The GPPP had prepared a framework for a peaceful transfer of power that proved very helpful in the subsequent transition weeks leading up to the inauguration of the new Mills presidency and NDC government. This framework has been subsequently reviewed and transformed into the Presidential Transition Bill 2009 which has received cabinet approval and will soon be forwarded to parliament for approval. After enactment it will be added to the Ghanaian statute books.

Nevertheless, the hand-over from the former NPP government to the new NDC government created a number of tensions during 2009 because the ‘spoil system’ meant that government positions held by NPP supporters now had to be filled by NDC supporters. This created discontinuity in government for some time and led to some nasty tit-for-tat measures meant to pay back the NPP for what the NDC had had to endure in 2000. Tolerance between the political adversaries has been severely tested in recent months. Again, the established inter-party cooperation has had a necessary moderating effect.

In a post-mortem of the transition period, party leaders appeared to agree that transition rules need to be developed to ensure that in the future 70% – as one of the party leaders suggested – of government positions will be non-political and not part of the spoil system when a new government comes in. Also, objective provisions need to be agreed to provide outgoing government officials, beginning with the former president, with the appropriate remuneration, secretarial and security support.

Constitutional Reform
Despite some interruptions in government continuity during the beginning of the new administration, the DCSP proved its value. The substantial constitutional reform proposals in this strategy have meanwhile resulted in the appointment by the government of an all-party constitutional review committee (CRC) with a clear mandate to review 40 constitutional proposals within a timeframe of 15 months. The Executive Director of the GPPP, Ms Jean Mensah, is one of the members of the CRC. In early 2011 the CRC will table its proposals at a Constitutional Conference for which 800 delegates will be elected. The thorough preparations of the DCSP through an inclusive process have meant that the constitutional reform process has been met with wide public support, unlike the situation in many other young democracies.

Some of the key elements up for review in the Constitution are:

  • The balance of power between the executive and legislative, with the aim of strengthening the latter;
  • Considering the introduction of provisions that would allow easier tabling and passage of Private Member Bills in Parliament;
  • Reviewing the provision that a majority of ministers should come from parliament;
  • Reviewing the article that does not limit the number of ministers;
  • Decoupling the position of Attorney-General from that of the minister of justice;
  • Limiting the presidential prerogative to appoint the number of supreme court judges, with the aim of strengthening the independence of the judiciary;
  • Considering multi-party elections at the local government level;
  • More effective provisions in the Constitution to achieve real decentralization of government powers and functions to District Assemblies;
  • Considering introducing full-time commissioners for the Electoral Commission; and
  • Reviewing amendments to the electoral system.

In addition to the constitutional review process, the GPPP has prepared legislation on the following topics:

  • a Freedom of Information Bill;
  • the Presidential Transition Bill;
  • a Political Parties Bill;
  • a Public Funding of Political Parties Bill; and
  • the ratification of the AU Charter on Democracy, Governance and Elections

At a meeting at the State House (The Castle, which was formerly the slave fort Christiansborg) on March 3, 2010, President Mills met with the NIMD delegation, and committed himself once again to taking the legislation forward and consolidating the GPPP as a core programme for advancing democracy

Unresolved Issues
While this is all very encouraging and promising, in discussions with the Ghanaian political leadership two issues kept coming back that require attention. The first is the level of participation of women in the political arena in Ghana. While the previous parliament had 25 female MPs out of a total of 230, the number of women MPs has actually decreased to 19 in the current parliament.

Despite Ghana being, in the words of President Mills, a trail blazer of African democracy, this proportion of female participation is out of step with many other young democracies in Africa. It is not related to a lack of capacity amongst Ghanaian women; on the contrary, it is due to the prevailing electoral system and the expense of the party nomination process. The constitutional review process will be the suitable forum in which to address this anomaly in Ghana’s democratic performance.

The second issue pertains to the recent discovery of exploitable supplies of oil and gas in Ghana. Obviously, this offers tremendous opportunities for further economic diversification and development, but it could also, as other countries have learned, turn into a curse if not managed in the national interests of Ghana. The country needs framework legislation to regulate the exploration and licensing of these new natural assets, but little public discussion on this subject has occurred as yet. Political parties and the public at large are in need of information and informed debate. The GPPP has recently organized a conference on the issue and plans to continue public discussions in the future.

Another new activity on the horizon is the harmonization of the political reform strategy and the national development planning process. It will be an effort to integrate the democratic reform process with development planning at the country level through an inclusive participatory consultation process. The political party leadership has entered into discussions with the leadership of the national development planning commission to consider how this can be realized.

Ghana is in the process of preparing its next national development plan and intends to strengthen local ownership while applying the OECD/DAC Accra Action Agenda principles. According to political leaders interviewed, in previous national planning processes – GPRS I and GPRS II – Ghanaian political parties were never actively involved and never took responsibility for their implementation. If the new approach is to be successful, it could become an interesting best-practice model for adopting the modalities in which international aid is provided.

Interparty Dialogue
Finally, the interparty dialogue and cooperation as supported by NIMD has become another Ghanaian ‘export-article’. The political leaders of the four parliamentary parties are actively engaged in sharing their experiences with political leaders in other African countries at loggerheads with each other or worse. During the past month, Ghanaian political leaders hosted private talks with party leaders from Uganda, moderated by former president Kufour. Subsequently, the Ghanaians travelled to Uganda to meet with all the political parties in that country and to meet with their executive bodies to explain how interparty cooperation emerged in Ghana and what benefits it has brought to the country. This very effective peer exchange resulted in an interparty agreement signed by all Ugandan political parties at a national ceremony in Kampala on January 14, 2010.

Earlier, with the support of NIMD, the Ghanaian parties organized a series of so-called ‘ice-breakers’ – in other words, meetings to bring the warring parties in Togo, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast to the negotiating table. Although the conditions have been set for inter-party dialogues in these countries, funds are lacking for them to sustain the kind of interparty dialogue and cooperation unfolding in Ghana.

In a meeting with President Mills on March 3, he stated that: “The government is the product of the political parties, and once we agree on the rules, let fairness prevail, let transparency prevail, and let us work with one another because this is the only way in which we can enhance the opportunities that are available to us.“

He credited the GPPP and IEA by saying: “If indeed we are being credited with being a democratic nation that is worth using us an example, part of the credit really goes to you. We therefore continue to work hard with you to be able to build a better Ghana. There is no alternative to democracy.”

Important lessons have been learnt in the cooperation between the Ghanaian political parties and NIMD. The partnership has motivated the political parties to commit to inter-party cooperation and has led to them taking a pro-active role in addressing issues of national concern in Ghana, while also gradually reforming the political institutions and culture with the intention of entrenching pluriform democracy and the rule of law. For its part, NIMD has evolved in its role as a privileged long-term partner. NIMD has facilitated dialogue, shared its knowledge on democratic reform processes, provided networking platforms and technical assistance on specific agenda items and, finally, acted as a broker between Ghana and international partners to ensure their support for the political reform agenda (DCSP).

The results achieved through this cooperation demonstrate, to quote President Mills’ recent State of the Nation address again, “what genuine reconciliation and collaboration, based on a spirit of Wanting-To-Work-Together, can achieve’’ in consolidating democracy.