In a few weeks’ time, Ghanaians will vote in a referendum to determine whether elections to local government bodies should be on partisan basis, and frankly I am perplexed at the way things are turning out in the upcoming ballot. One would have thought that the nation would embrace the opportunity to extend our democratic practice through political parties to the grassroots; it comes as a shock to see, read and hear people expressing very negative ideas about this possibility.
I say it is strange but also understandable in the current climate of apparent cynicism and discontent with the political class. I think what is happening is that people are using this referendum to vent their feelings about politicians, political parties and even the political process.
Over the past few years the consensus appears to have solidified that politicians are out to feather their own nests instead of fighting for the betterment of the people. Social media is awash with opinions and statements virtually condemning democracy while praising strong-arm and authoritarian regimes because in the eyes of so many people “we can’t eat democracy”. They say that the authoritarian regimes appear to do better at feeding their people and responding to their basic needs. Ghana’s democratic credentials which have won admiration around the world appears to count for less at home.
The reason for this apparent disaffection is not difficult to find. The two biggest political parties, the NPP and NDC, which between them have governed this country throughout the current Fourth Republic, have not covered themselves with glory. People see them as extremist and unwilling to work together. Their behaviour has sometimes driven us to the edge and every election season comes with fear and panic of something terrible to happen. They accuse each other of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence, but in office appear not to do much about this bad situation. These are some of the reasons why people appear to be turning away from democracy as a preferred system of government.
However, for all that, there is no doubt that despite the misgivings, the 1992 Constitution has given us the longest period of uninterrupted civilian rule in our country since independence. Much of that is due to the fact that the two major parties have taken turns at government instead of one party being in power for ever as is the case in several African countries. Personally, I believe that we ought to celebrate and defend our democracy more robustly.
The issue at stake in the referendum is whether elections to local government bodies should be conducted through political parties as is the case of elections to the national parliament. We have heard many prominent people and institutions canvassing for the NO vote. Their arguments fall into two main reasons. One is that allowing multiparty elections at the lower rungs of government would lead to a replication of the negativity associated with political parties at the national level. The other is cost, which is feared would spiral out of control if people spend as they do during primaries and substantive elections at the national level.
I don’t think that the solution to bad behavior by the two main political parties is to limit multiparty elections to only the national level. Citizens’ freedom to form or join political parties comes from our right of free association, which is a fundamental human right. To truncate multiparty politics at any level is to deny citizens a very important human, political and civic right. In other words, the NO vote may be aimed at preventing NPP and NDC from extending their so-called bad behavior to the local assemblies. In reality we are voting against a God given right.
I think we all have to wake up and smell the strong whiff of cocoa. Local level elections are partisan right to the colours the candidates use in their election posters. Political parties operate in all constituencies across the country and it would be really abnormal if they were not involved in local level elections. Frankly, they are. Voters know which candidates have been sponsored by which party or even factions of the same parties. It is hypocritical to pretend that politics is a saintly business at the local level.
Here is the thing: in the main, we opted for a multiparty democratic system with the adoption of the 1992 Constitution; in almost all democracies of this nature, there is no restriction on citizens forming or joining political parties for the purpose of contesting for seats at the lower levels of government. In fact, the principle is to go as far down as possible in order to entrench the ideals of multiparty norms in society as a whole.
I suspect that some of the advocates of the NO vote fear that local councils will split into “government” and “opposition” seats which could lead to disunity and tensions. In reality, we need opposition at every level of governance to ensure that power is checked and people entrusted with power do not become dictators and despots. We need this system of government and opposition, you can call it majority and minority, to check power at all levels.
The truth is that political parties play a key role in our democracy. They help us to mould our ideas into presentable shape so that people can understand them and think about them before accepting or rejecting them at elections. In the same way, parties present these ideas to the public in a way that builds up public opinion for specific ideas, programmes or even projects. In parliament, political parties enable like-minded people to come together to formulate ideas for purposes of legislation. Why are we denying ourselves these democratic benefits at the local level? My argument is that we either scrap political parties altogether or allow them to operate at all levels. In truth, assemblies without political parties become assemblies without politics!
We have to acknowledge the fears some people have raised about the undue influence of political parties and the money issues that come with that dominance. In the main, none of that will be cured by perpetuating the charade of nonparty elections to local assemblies. The solution lies in tighter regulations and how they are monitored. Ultimately however, how our political parties behave depends on us. It is not as if the political parties are operated by an alien force from outer space.
We have a choice. If we want local government forums to be dynamic, democratic and functioning entities we have to allow political parties to operate at that level and participate openly in elections. Political parties are the only organised means by which public opinion is formulated and propagated and this is true of all levels. We have a choice: if we want decentralisation to be democratic, real and complete, we have to vote YES.
By: Nana Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng
This is a slightly edited version of The View from Here column in the Mirror Nov 23, 2019