ACCRA (AFP) – Ghana holds what is expected to be a tight presidential election on Friday as the emerging country and new oil producer seeks to live up to its promise as a beacon of democracy in West Africa.
Both of Ghana’s main political parties have taken a turn at giving up power after a vote, establishing the country as a stable democracy in a region long plagued by suspect polls and turbulent, sometimes bloody, regime changes.
President John Dramani Mahama, 54, of the National Democratic Congress only took power in July, when his predecessor John Atta Mills died following an illness.
The challenger, 68-year-old Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party, lost by less than one percentage point in 2008, and insists he is poised to reverse that narrow defeat.
Voters will also be electing a new parliament, which has been expanded to 275 seats from 230. The NDC won a narrow edge in seats over the NPP in the 2008 vote.
Six minor candidates also appear on the presidential ballot and could together earn enough support to deprive either Mahama or Akufo-Addo of the majority needed for a first-round win.
If neither wins more than 50 percent, Ghanaians will vote in a run-off on December 28.
Ghana’s success has garnered world attention, with US President Barack Obama selecting the country for his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa after taking office in 2009.
Having completed five elections since military rule ended in 1992 and with an expanding economy fuelled by gold and cocoa exports, in addition to the newly found oil wealth, voters’ expectations are greater than ever, analysts said.
“There is a higher bar, for whoever wins,” said Dante Mossi, senior operations officer at the World Bank’s Ghana office. “The name of the game has changed.”
The economy grew at 14 percent in 2011, the first full year of oil production, with eight percent growth expected for 2012 and 2013, according to the World Bank.
Such rapid growth brings added “responsibility,” Mossi said, and pressures a government to “increase services very fast.”
– Ripples of unease –
There are already ripples of unease among some who feel their lives have not improved as the country has gotten richer, a trend which could spell trouble for the president, said Franklin Oduro, deputy director of Ghana’s Centre for Democratic Development.
Many Ghanaians feel “they still haven’t reaped the benefit of any economic policymaking and their standard of living hasn’t really changed that much compared to a couple of years ago,” he said.
Mahama may also suffer from divisions within the NDC, with national political icon Jerry Rawlings, a former military and elected head of state, openly voicing frustrations with the party he founded more than two decades ago.
But analysts say Mahama seems to have successfully introduced himself to the country in the four and half months he has been president and note that Ghanaians have chosen to re-elect incumbents in two previous tests, including the 1996 and 2004 polls.
The winner will face the all-important task of managing revenue from oil production, which began in late 2010.
While the offshore Jubilee field has under-performed since production began in December 2010, averaging roughly 80,000 barrels per day, that number is expected to increase amid the prospect of further revenue from other commercially viable fields.
How to spend the cash has been a central issue of the campaign, with Mahama advocating a large investment in infrastructure and Akufo-Addo fronting his signature policy of free secondary school education.
Aside from oil, Ghana is one of the world’s largest cocoa producers with gold also serving as a key source of revenue.
Because the nation of some 24 million people is so heavily reliant on commodities, its boom could be derailed if “world prices take a dive,” Mossi explained.
But regardless of commodity price volatility, Ghana’s future remains promising, he added, because the country has earned credibility through its democratic credentials and set itself apart.
To the east lies Togo, ruled by the same family for four decades, and to the west Ivory Coast, still emerging from a bloody civil conflict sparked by a disputed 2010 poll.
Meanwhile in Nigeria, the regional powerhouse and Africa’s largest oil producer, massive graft continues unchecked amid serious security concerns.