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Ghana pulls off sixth 'free and fair' election in model for region

Ghana has once again voted freely and fairly in a presidential election, electing its president for four more years and bolstering its image as a stable democracy in a region where smooth elections are rare.

The election victory for President John Dramani Mahama followed the death of former President John Atta Mills in July as well as a contentious campaign largely fought over how best to manage the country’s education system.

“There were hiccups here and there, [which were] purely administrative, and once they were addressed, everything proceeded smoothly,” says Pakalitha Mosisili, chairman of an observer group from the commonwealth. “We have no hesitation in declaring the 2012 Ghana elections free and fair, transparent, and leading to a credible result.”

Those hiccups included problems with a new voter fingerprint verification system and delays in getting ballots to the polls. And the country’s opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) has claimed widespread fraud and vowed not to accept the official results without an audit, an issue which may be resolved in court. 

But compared with its neighbors, Ghana’s sixth presidential election since 1992 was a remarkable example of democracy at work in a region where it is still an exception rather than the rule.

“We have come to accept the fact that politics, even though it divides us, cannot break the family unity we have as Ghanaians,” says Franklin Oduro, deputy director the Center for Democratic Development think tank. “We think that whatever peace we have, no matter how small it is, we need to protect it, we need to consolidate it.”

The first test of that commitment came not on polling day, but in July, when President Mills passed away. President Mahama was smoothly elevated to power, tasked with leading the ruling National Democratic Congress’s campaign against NPP candidate Nana Akufo-Addo, who had run in 2008.

Mr. Akufo-Addo had been defeated so narrowly in the last poll that some NPP supporters claim the election was stolen. Nonetheless, Akufo-Addo stepped aside, returning for the 2012 campaign with a pledge to make high school free.

In the run-up to the election day, both parties traded accusations that their opponents were conspiring to strong-arm voters and rig polls. And when voting started, ballot materials showed up late and some fingerprint verification machines failed. In response, the electoral commission took the unprecedented step of keeping some polls open for a second day, which was met with objections from the ruling party but little organized resistance.

“I think from the experience that Ghana had in 2008, they made a lot of improvement in rule of law,” says David Zounmenou, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.

Some NPP supporters suspicious of a government attempt to rig the election staged protests in front of the electoral commission building and in an Accra residential area, where they claimed poll rigging was occurring.

But that was the extent, more or less, of any electoral unrest in Ghana. Compare that to neighboring Ivory Coast, whose former president lost last year’s election but refused to cede power, leading to a bloody civil war that haunts the country to this day.

“We’ve seen the commitment from the political actors, we’ve seen commitment from [electoral commission]” toward orderly elections, Mr. Zounmenou says. “I think if the country has made progress to that extent, it needs to be commended.”

Indeed, even the NPP protesters who converged on the electoral commission building on Sunday evening called not for blood and battle, but simply “We want peace!”

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