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Opinions of Saturday, 16 November 2019

Columnist: Andrews Krow

Let's protect our democracy - vote no in the upcoming referendum

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The NPP government led by Nana Akufo-Addo has recently decided to amend our constitution via a referendum to introduce party politics in our local elections. This, I am afraid, is dangerous decision, which could unravel what is left of our democratic system after the highly polarized environment.

Three arguments are usually offered in favour of party-based local government elections by those who support this dangerous decision. First, the political parties do not abide by the existing system of non- partisan elections, hence we should change the laws. Second, it would allow political parties to impose their discipline on representatives elected with party nominations. Third, it would make our system fully democratic and ensure proper sponsorship of candidates. I feel that these arguments are weak and erroneous.

Let us look at the argument that political parties do not play by the existing rules, so our laws must be changed. That argument is unacceptable. Unfortunately, our political parties and many politicians, for that matter, do not abide by many laws and rules including political parties’ sponsorship. Does it mean that we should scrap all laws?

Proponents argue that with partisan election political parties could take disciplinary action against representatives elected with party nominations for their illegal, immoral and unethical activities. This argument makes no sense, as some of our parties do not have the record of taking action against unsavoury behaviour by elected representatives. Only in exceptional cases, where representatives or officials made reckless tribal or religious comments.

That it will make our system fully democratic is another baseless argument. Does it mean use of party slogans and symbols makes a system fully democratic? Monetisation of our politics is the main cause of the political tribulation we witnessing. Election, whether partisan or nonpartisan, is a political process. Thus, those who argue that nonpartisan elections are nonpartisan elections, depoliticisation takes place, seem to lack clarity in their thinking.

One of the basic democratic norms is to show tolerance and respect for political opponents and dissenting voices. But in Ghana, the government not only can't tolerate political opponents and dissenting voices, but they also engaged in violent confrontational politics and even efforts to intimidate those who oppose their decisions. They do not even respect people's right to free and fair elections and we saw what happened at Ayawaso West Wuogon.

Such an environment is not conducive for free and fair elections, which is a prerequisite for a democratic government, created with the consent of the masses. Given this, partisan elections at the local level will only promote party archy, reflected by blind allegiances to parties, rather than strengthening our democratic system. The ruling party cannot impose its democratic culture on Ghanaians and expect Ghanaians to accept it. It should hold a broad-based dialogue to reach consensus on which portion of our laws we should amend.

The current system has served us well in spite of the associated challenges. Considering the responsibilities of our local officials and the number of voters who think themselves as independents, it's appropriate to take a break from the agenda-driven politics of national politics when we consider local issues and candidates. I have heard some commentators say partisanship is essential to democracy at all levels. That is another bogus argument. Let's distinguish the partisanship of supporters from their candidate's characteristics. A good candidate will organise a broad-based campaign, attracting endorsements from several sectors of his community.

Such a candidate may represent himself or herself as nonpartisan in the sense of being above politics, devoted to the common good and to fostering understanding among people who don't see eye to eye. In our communities, our chiefs, pastors, Imams and other opinion leaders push people they see befitting to contest for positions at the local level to support their activities. That is the only clear opportunity they have to push their ideas and positions because of the position they hold. The constitution does not allow chiefs to partake in active politics. Our local elections offer them the opportunity to support persons they deem responsible and hardworking.

Ghana is seriously polarised. We are divided on NPP/NDC lines. Every sector including our institutions of state is polarised. Our national football teams do not enjoy the support they deserve because of the polarised environment. What the President of the Western Regional House of Chiefs said in reaction to the statement issued by the National House of Chiefs should alert us that we are almost in the big hole. The NDC/NPP virus has entered the house. To say the political parties do not abide by the existing laws hence we should change the laws is childish.

What about making sure the parties desist from that illegal conduct by strictly applying the rules and associated sanctions. Without desirable changes in the political culture, partisan local government elections are likely to be tainted by the usual widespread use of money and muscle of power for securing nomination and bringing down the quality of candidates. Party vigilantes and hoodlums may also be used to make threats and harass political opponents. The ruling party capture of the local bodies would surely further strangle our democratic system. We know our politics and this ruling party capture of state institutions from the top to the bottom. Contrary to the argument out there that it will ensure balance of power, if the remaining local bodies can be captured through partisan elections, ruling parties’ control over all political institutions would be absolute, which would be an ominous development, and will threaten the very foundation of our democratic polity. Possible friction between government and elected officials of the opposition parties will undermine development in our communities.

The usual strongholds dominance will continue. It will be difficult for hardworking independent candidates who do not position themselves squarely in one place on the political spectrum to sail through. Nonpartisan election permit candidates to define themselves as individuals, responding to local issues. The dominant explanation in political science literature for the current system is that, local politics is not ideological, it is only about the competence with which public goods are provided and the allocation of these goods to different people. I don't want to touch on the constitutional dynamics because the whole idea is bogus and dangerous. We've divided Ghana enough; it is time to build bridges instead of compounding the canker.