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General News of Thursday, 30 November 2000

Source: The Financial Times by William Wallis

SURVEY - GHANA: Race to succeed will be close

In a brief public tirade in November, President Jerry Rawlings singled out the constitution, the courts and the political opposition for attack.

The first, the constitution which determines that his time as president is up, "is not a Bible," he said.

The second, the courts, he said, have let all manner of criminals slip through the net, and allowed allegations of nepotism against him and Nana Konadu Rawlings, his wife, run riot in the press. "We have no power over the courts," he barked.

Opposition politicians, he warned at the rally of ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) party followers in the gold-mining town of Tarkwa, now want to "reap where they have not sown".

The speech illustrated one of the great ironies of Mr Rawlings' rule - that a man who has often railed against the constraints of a constitutional and pluralist system of government, has been instrumental for a decade in its potentially irreversible adoption in Ghana.

He is due, as a result, to step down next January after two decades at the centre of the political scene.

Presidential elections on December 7 should see either his NDC successor, John Atta Mills the vice-president, or John Kufuor, candidate for the leading opposition party, the National People's Party (NPP), assume the leadership.

Both men lack the charisma and crowd-winning style of Mr Rawlings. But many Ghanaians are convinced that if their country is to consolidate the democratic gains it has won in the past decade, it is not the political attributes of the leadership, but the strengthening of its institutions which must take precedence.

"Ghana has a rare opportunity to put behind it a long period when personalities dominated government," says Joe Abbey of the Centre for Policy Analysis, the Accra-based research institute. "Both men (Mills and Kufuor) have developed a reputation for their intellectual capacity. Neither will shy away from public debate."

By all accounts the race between them will be close. Both are Christians from the south with running mates from the Muslim north, an area which has felt in the past marginalised. Both have embraced publicly donor-backed policies for economic reform and liberalisation.

What divides them most perhaps is the status of their political parties as incumbent and challenger.

On a platform of "Positive Change" the NPP has harangued the NDC for high-level corruption, an economic record which falls short of Ghana's potential and leaves the country in a spiralling balance of payments crisis. The party - natural inheritor of the centre-right United Party which opposed the socialist rule of independence leader, Kwame Nkrumah - deplores the abuse of individual liberties which has lingered since the end of military rule.

It has meanwhile succeeded to a large extent in shedding an image of elitism and bias towards the powerful Ashanti region, perceptions that cost it support elsewhere in past elections.

It has also selected parliamentary candidates for the legislative elections - due on the same day as the presidentials - in a more democratic manner, something that political observers believe could swing the vote in marginal areas.

But the NPP lacks the ruling party's power to motivate a strong grassroots following, an asset which helped win Mr Rawlings substantial majorities.

Moreover, government has pulled out the stops to delay painful decisions such as the deregulation of fuel and electricity pricing. It has raised the farm gate price for cocoa by a third despite the collapsed world market, and chose the pre-election weeks to distribute cut-price machetes to farmers.

It can also point to its long-term track record for reviving the economy.

Meanwhile, President Rawlings continues to participate in campaigning, his appearances inspiring an energy absent from NPP rallies and making Mr Mills' performance at his side appear almost as an afterthought.

"The Rawlings magic will continue to play a role. But the change factor could cost the NDC as much as 10 or 15 per cent of the vote," predicts Koffi Kumsun, publisher of the independent Chronicle newspaper.

This would be enough to bring Mr Kufuor to power. In 1996 he won almost 40 per cent of the vote to Mr Rawlings' 57 per cent.

The wild card will be the other political parties. If neither of the two main candidates wins a majority in the first round, the backing of minor parties in a second round could be critical.

The National Reform Party of Goosie Tanoh, a dissident from the NDC who has spoken out against its shortcomings, could, for example, eat into the NDC's traditional support base.

Meanwhile, there are fears - apparent in hourly radio broadcasts appealing for peace - that a tight election could lead to violence. The outcome will test the real strength of the system as it emerges from domination by one of Africa's most flamboyant and volatile strong men.