Electing District Level Officials on the Ticket of Political Parties: Let’s Err on the Side of Caution

Listening to the ongoing deliberations about the proposed institutional reforms to allow for election of District Chief Executives and other local government actors on the political party platforms, I have observed that both the No and Yes campaigners are talking pass each other instead of talking to each other. Typical of our society, people have taken entrenched positions regardless of any inherent flaws.

Assuming the referendum is intended to elect district officials one may ask: What problems do the initiators wish to solve with the referendum that seeks to move towards electing District Officials on partisan basis?

From the debates, there appears to be three main reasons put forward in the arguments in favour of electing DCEs, Assembly and Unit Committee members on partisan basis, and these include:

a. Need to reduce the overbearing powers of executive presidents especially in relation to appointments.

b. Need to bring accountability to local governance by making such sure District officials are directly accountable to the people who elected them.

c. Use political parties to rally popular interest in district level elections as often the case in presidential and parliamentary elections.

The next question to ask is: will the election of DCEs, Assemblymen, and Unit Committee members on multi-party platforms address the concerns above?

My thinking is that:
1. Elections at the presidential and parliamentary levels in Ghana have so far not produced transparent and accountable governments, and so there is no guarantee that exporting same to the District or local level will address the issues of accountability and transparency.

  1. We can limit the presidential influence in District level governance without bringing partisan politics to that level. All that is required to engineer creative and innovative institutional reforms that allows for DCEs to be selected from non-partisan electoral colleges in the Districts or even from among the elected Assembly members. Same body then should have the power to extract accountability and power to remove District officials.

  2. The lack of popular interest in District level politics is not due to lack of partisan elections, it is a problem arising from the inability of the District Assemblies to meet the aspirations and welfare needs of the local population. So what we need is to empower the Districts Assemblies to focus on policies that provide opportunities for the population to pursue their welfare without the needless bureaucratic impediments.

What are the political consequences of electing District officials on partisan lines?
Just a few for now:

i. We will be exporting the corrupt practices and patron-client relationship associated with our partisan politics to the District level and that will undermine equitable distribution of development resources.

ii. Partisan election of DCE and other officials at the District level has the potential to revive and heighten ethnic tensions as partisan politics has the tendency to pitch ethnic groups in the districts against each other under the cover of multi-party competitive elections.

iii. Electing District level officials will introduce a new cost category to our budget and take funds away from education, health, housing and other essential services that enhance the productive capabilities of the citizenry. As a developing aid-dependent country, it is smart thinking if we set our priorities right.

iv. Considering the existing voting pattern in Ghana since 1992, electing District officials on partisan basis will mean that at any given time, a central government will not have it’s own District officials in some parts of the country. In other words, anytime NDC is in power, it is likely it will not have District officials in the Ashanti Region and same will be the case in Volta region when NPP is in power. This will not be good for nation-building.

v. Furthermore, there is the real possibility that DCEs from an opposition party will work to undermine the central government in their jurisdiction, and same can be said of central government tendencies to punish Districts that choose DCEs from opposition parties if we opt for multi-party election of local officials.

vi. It should also be noted that we run the risk of making the District Assemblies captives to financier of competitive partisan elections at that level. Given that the State does not directly finance political party activities in Ghana, if we choose to elect DCEs on partisan lines, we are likely to produce local level officials who will be accountable to their financers. In such a situation, elected district officials can be held hostage by the interest of those who finance their electoral victory. In addition, such a situation will most likely lead to an increase in procurement infractions at the local levels.

Let’s allow sobriety to guide our approach to this very important issue. This must be an opportunity to talk more to each other. Listening to each other’s perspective is key to consensus building. Fixation on competitive partisan elections can be detrimental. Our experience has shown that competitive elections ran on partisan basis are not only acrimonious, they can also be detrimental to social cohesion. There are already too many families divided along partisan lines, and too many communities suspicious of each other due to partisan differences. Let us not given them oxygen to explode.

At all times, we must be reminded that competitive election is just one of the many tools available for designing rules that shape democracies and democratic behaviour. So it goes without saying that we can address the concerns of the initiators of the referendum without burdening Ghana with another a vicious, acrimonious, and divisive partisan politics at the local level.
We must grow this country thoughtfully.

Dr. Michael Kpessa-Whyte
Senior Research Fellow
University of Ghana, Legon

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