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Opinions of Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Columnist: Safo Amos

We must protect our democracy

The 2020 general elections, their outcome, and overall conduct of political players in Ghana call for sober reflection on what democracy and democratisation mean and the debate on the way forward.

According to American political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; and protection of the human rights of all citizens.

The nature of democracy is that elected officials are accountable to the people, and they must return to the voters at arranged intervals to seek their mandate to continue in office. For that reason, most democratic constitutions provide that elections are held at fixed regular intervals.

The word democracy comes from two Greek words – demos (people) and kratos (rule). Therefore, the word means ‘rule by the people’, sometimes called ‘popular sovereignty’, and can refer to direct, participatory and representative forms of rule by the people.

Democracy is also rule of law; accountability; freedoms of association, assembly, opinion and expression; equality; and responsiveness. This supposes that even those who make the laws are subject to the same laws they make. In other words, no one is above the law.

Today, democracy has assumed such a positive meaning globally that even the most dictatorial systems try to connect themselves with this positive image.

Unfortunately, and in the words of Macdonald Chipenzi – the Director, Foundation for Democratic Process: “What we see in Africa now is a crisis in democracy: self-interested and unresponsive governments that have betrayed the aspirations of African democracy’s initiators”.

Currently, Uganda epitomises the crisis of democracy – with Yoweri Museveni holding on to power after 35 years, having breached the two-term tenure several times.

This crisis of democracy nearly engulfed Ghana, if what we witnessed during the recent election of the Speaker of 8th Parliament of the Fourth Republic is to be taken seriously. Despite some inherent weaknesses, democracy has evolved over the years from pluralism to participatory to representative, founded on the rule of law.

The rule of law

In simple terms, in a democracy an elected representative participates in making laws but is still bound by the law. Once passed, the law is supreme – not those who made the law. Representatives can participate in changing a law, but until it is changed everyone must obey it. Before that, monarchs claimed that they had been appointed by God to rule (the divine right of kings) and were therefore, above the law. The principle involved is that a society should be able to bind itself by the rules it collectively has chosen, and no individual or institution should be outside the rules so chosen.

The electoral system

There can be no sustainable democracy without a credible electoral system. In other words, the means of choosing representatives is central to making democracy work. For this reason, governments have invested human and financial resources in improving the electoral system.

As we may have witnessed in the 2008 and 2012 elections, inherent weaknesses in electoral procedures significantly determined the outcome of an election.

The normal rule of elections is that the side with most votes wins; but it is always important to remember that this does not mean those with the most votes are right: it just means that because more people voted for Party A rather than Party B, A must be accepted until the next election gives people a chance to change to B if they so wish. Majority rule tends to assume that any issue has only two sides.

However, we must be reminded that presidential elections are not a relay race wherein parties pass on the baton. The electorate decide, and we must accept the will of the people. Simply put, a political party may win more parliamentary seats in each election but could lose the presidential election if the electorate decides to vote in a different direction from the parliamentary vote.

Thus, the initial assumption by one party that they won majority seats in parliament and naturally won the presidential election was flawed. The presidential and parliamentary elections are two separate elections, and must always be presented as such.

Political candour

Political candour is fundamental to the success of democracy. From the beginning of the electoral reforms ahead of the 2020 elections, opposition leaders had derided every attempt to promote transparent and fair elections.

The opposition candidate, John Dramani Mahama, had stated that unless the election went his way, it would be deemed as flawed. This agenda seeped into the psyche of opposition supporters.

As was predicted the Presidential Election result was rejected by John Dramani Mahama based on preconceived notions of a ‘flawed election’. Initially, the impression had been created that candidate John Dramani Mahama won the election even though Mrs. Jean Mensa, the Electoral Commissioner, announced Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party as the winner.

The basis for rejection was that Mrs. Mensah wrongly announced the ‘total votes cast’, rather than the total ‘valid’ votes cast. Though she corrected the anomaly a day after the election, the opposition remained adamant.

Political violence

In response, the National Democratic Congress called their supporters onto the streets: and they responded by barricading roads, vandalising billboards, littering the streets and burning lorry tires.

Subsequently, the opposition leadership downgraded their demand to be declared winner of the presidential elections to calling for a rerun of polls between their candidate and the president-elect. This revised position forms the core of the election petition at the Supreme Court.

According to the 1992 constitution, the first option for seeking redress in election-related disputes is the court. Many well-meaning Ghanaians will be wondering why the opposition party resorted to violence before seeking redress at the courts.

In his last State of the Nation Address, President Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo acknowledged the decision of John Dramani Mahama to seek the legal path instead of invoking violence. “We all have to make a deliberate decision to invest in the rule of law and uphold the integrity of institutions of state, so that no person or group of persons takes the law into their own hands with impunity,” the president said.

Violence in Parliament

Ghanaians had a rude shock when on the eve of January 7, 2021 some elected parliamentarians misconducted themselves – to the point of tarnishing Ghana’s positive image as a torchbearer in Africa’s democratisation process.

What should have ended as a peaceful election of the Speaker of Parliament ended in fisticuffs and ignominy. It was so needless for our elected representatives to make themselves look ridiculous over which side is the majority, when the Standing Orders of Parliament clearly stated it.

Whose speaker?

What culminated in the election of the rightful Speaker, Alban Sumana Bagbin, was equally unpleasant if we use Parliamentary conduct as a standard. The process was shambolic to say the least, as a well-choreographed opposition plan unfolded. In the end, Alban Bagbin emerged as a compromised candidate.

His election appears to have been well received by many Ghanaians, judging from his experience in Parliament and his general conduct as the previous second Deputy Speaker of Parliament.

Realistically, the Speaker is a very respected politician who served the country creditably for 28 years as a Member of Parliament. He has been outspoken against corruption in his own government and against politics of patronage.

Certainly, the new Speaker of Parliament has an arduous task to rise above partisanship and provide leadership that projects the national interest. He cannot allow his party affiliations to obstruct government’s development agenda for Ghana.

Cooperation

In his SONA speech, President Akufo-Addo stated that by giving Parliament an almost equal strength on both sides of the House, the electorate had signalled the need for both sides to cooperate and promote consensus. “The House will have to be more accommodating of each other’s views, and probably devise new ways of conducting its affairs,” the president advised.

In my view, how Parliament conducts its business under leadership of the current Speaker will define his future political ambitions. So, the onus is on the Honourable Alban Bagbin to define his own political future by rising above partisanship – and I have no doubt he will excel on the job.

Level headedness

Once in a lifetime, a situation provides an opportunity for the general public to assess our leaders. The outcome of the 2020 election was one clear situation that presented itself for Ghanaians to judge who is level-headed and who is hot-headed. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines level-headedness as “having or showing sound judgment”.

Its synonyms include: “commonsense, firm, good, informed, just, logical, rational, reasonable, sensible, sober, well-founded”, etc. Its antonyms (or opposite meaning) include illogical, invalid, irrational, nonsensical, nonvalid, unfounded, uninformed, unjustified, unreasonable, unreasoned, unsound”, etc.

In life, one is either level-headed or hot-headed. Undoubtedly, political reactions after the 2020 election and the disturbances which heralded the Speaker of Parliament’s election bore ample testimony to the two kinds of political leadership we have across the political divide.

As stated earlier, it was unnecessary for leadership of the opposition to push their supporters onto the streets before resorting to the court. It was equally poor judgement on the part of opposition Members of Parliament to embark on a demonstration to the Electoral Commission without any Police permit or prior notice. Perhaps their conduct demonstrated ‘hot-headedness’ rather than the level-headedness required of members of government’s law-making arm.

This explains why the Police have charged them with disturbing public order. From all indications, the Minority leader, Haruna Iddrisu, is nursing presidential ambitions. If that is the case, he needs to refine or redefine his leadership style. I wonder if Ghanaians would ever vote for a president who is ‘hot-headed’ and likely to make haphazard decisions that would destabilise the country, rather than promoting peace, stability and development?

Vote-buying

The right to vote without interference is key to the ability to refine the political system. This right is an ultimate check on government and also prevents a party without credible alternative policies from assuming power.

Moving forward, it is prudent to invest in political education as a fundamental principle of democracy. On this score, the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) is not living up to its Constitutional mandate.

Democratic theorists like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill tied their political theories loosely or tightly to the need for an educated populace. This is because citizens are required to choose among competing candidates and issues.

Thus, citizens must be able to evaluate the information and weigh the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ before deciding who and what to vote for. Sadly, vote-buying or voting without the right information is becoming a setback for Ghana’s democratic advancement.

In the 2020 election, it was sad to see voters taking various sums of money to influence their decisions at the point of voting. This is criminal and dangerous, and if left unchecked could offset our gains.

I can foresee armed-robbers, cocaine dealers and money launderers buying the whole electoral system and annexing power in future if it only takes money for the electorate’s choice to be influenced. We must protect our Parliament.

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