On Friday 9 December, President John Mahama of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) called his rival, Nana Akufo Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), to concede defeat in the presidential election. Mahama’s defeat was comprehensive: he recorded the lowest vote share of any sitting president since the return of multiparty politics in 1992 (44%), and in the legislative elections his political party was reduced to around 105 of the 275 seats on offer (some results TBC). His defeat also made history in another way: he is the only sitting president to have lost an election in Ghana. All previous transfers of power occurred in open-seat polls, in which the sitting president had stood down as a result of presidential term-limits, and the ruling party was hampered by having to run a new candidate.
Does this mean that President Mahama will go down as one of the country’s least successful presidents? Not necessarily. Despite the disappointing result, few commentators believe that the NDC ran a bad campaign. The party focussed on its strengths and spoke about issues that were of interest to voters. Moreover, the general attitude towards Mahama among ordinary Ghanaians appears to be that he did not have the tools that the country required, but was a relatively benign leader. This perception, of course, will now be reinforced by the fact that he was willing to concede defeat, and did so before the official results had been announced by the electoral commission.
This raises the question of why the opposition won the election so comprehensively. Two factors seem to explain this. First, a period of sustained economic difficulties has hurt living standards, and has resulted in high levels of youth unemployment. In turn, this has encouraged Ghanaians to look for economic change – something that is promised by the NPP. While some of the country’s economic difficulties reflect global trends beyond its control, such as the slump in oil prices, the government’s handling of the crisis has been widely criticised, undermining the NDC’s claim that it was the party best placed to ensure economic revival.
Second, a number of high profile corruption scandals involving figures around the president enabled the opposition to argue that Ghana’s economic woes can not be fully explained by external factors, and are instead rooted in the dysfunctionality of the ruling party itself. This narrative appears to have been effective, particularly among younger voters. A nationally representative survey conducted by the author in December 2015 found that while many do not blame the president for what has happened in the country, a majority of people did not trust Mahama (56%), and that even in the NDC’s heartlands 41% of people had no trust, or only a little trust, in the executive.
Taken together, these developments strongly favoured the NPP. However, they played out in different ways across the country. In the NPP’s heartlands, there was stronger support for Nana Akufo Addo – who in the past has suffered from a lower turnout in Ashanti areas than his NPP predecessor John Kufour, in part because although both leaders belong to the Akan group, Kufour is an Ashanti while Akufo Addo is an Akyem. By contrast, in the NDC’s core areas the NPP did not secure that many more votes, but did persuade traditional Mahama supporters to stay at home. The resulting decline in turnout – up to 18% in some areas – significantly undermined the ruling party’s prospects. In swing areas the picture was different again, with the NDC holding on to some legislative seats but losing the presidential vote in a number of constituencies in Cape Coast, and winning the presidential vote but losing seats in others.
All eyes will now turn to the President Elect, Nana Akufo Addo, a trained economist and lawyer. Known for his probity and for not suffering fools gladly, the new occupier of Flagstaff House will begin his term in office with two big things in his favour. First, he enjoys a strong mandate and a dominant majority in parliament. Second, economic growth is projected to pick up to around 5% this year, from 4% in 2015.
However, he also faces a number of significant challenges. Although a clear majority of Ghanaians voted for him, it is often said that Akufo Addo is not well liked by his fellow countrymen – a fact that some NPP supporters have cited as the reason for his electoral defeats in 2008 and 2012. His brusque manner and elitist tone have meant that at times the new president has struggled to connect to the electorate. In this regard, it does not help that many voters can still remember the charismatic leadership of ex-President J. J. Rawlings, nicknamed “Junior Jesus” due to his charismatic persona and ability to generate great fervour among his supporters.
Akufo Addo’s lack of a human touch come back to haunt him at the next election if he is unable to deliver on his campaign promises. The 2016 elections are an important reminder that Ghanaians are now willing to vote out leaders who do not meet their expectations, incumbents or otherwise. Given this, it is particularly significant that in his desperation to grasp what was probably his final opportunity to win the presidency, Akufo Addo significantly overpromised. In addition the standard pledges to provide jobs and kick-start economic growth, the NPP made a specific set of high profile commitments that it may come to regret. These include creating an annual $1 million development fund for every constituency, and building a factory in every district.
Given that the country has 275 constituencies, and 216 districts, this effectively commits the new government to between $350 and $500 million of expenditure before it has even begun. Many critics have claimed that there is no way that the ruling party will be able to fund these promises, and that even if it can it will struggle to build 216 factories in four years. If this is true, and a difficult global context stymies economic recovery more generally, then the new president will be forced to fall back on his personal authority and the strength of his arguments. Should this come to pass, it may not be long before we start to hear talk of an NDC resurgence.