ACCRA (AFP) – Early results showed a tight race in Ghana’s presidential election on Saturday as the West African country allowed voting in some areas to continue for a second day after delays forced an extension of the polls.
The stakes are especially high in a nation with a booming economy fuelled by a new and expanding oil industry. Ghana is also seeking to further burnish its credentials as a stable democracy in a turbulent region.
Incumbent John Dramani Mahama, a writer and Afrobreat music fan, is vying for a first elected term against main opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo, a UK-trained lawyer and son of a former president.
Privately owned local television Joy News reported that partial provisional results showed Mahama with 49.83 percent of the votes counted and Akufo-Addo with 48.68 percent, but the figures were only from 168 of 275 districts and could evolve substantially, with results still pending from all regions.
Voters are also electing a 275-seat parliament.
The day was largely calm, but in the afternoon authorities fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of more than 100 people who burnt rubbish in the streets of a neighbourhood in the capital Accra. The protesters were angry over rumours of vote-rigging.
No evidence of rigging has emerged and observers from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-nation regional body, said Saturday that “in the main, the electoral process was peaceful and transparent.”
On the first day of the election on Friday, voting went smoothly in many areas, but a new biometric system requiring electronic fingerprints broke down in certain districts, resulting in long lines and frustration.
Materials arriving late also caused some polling stations to open far behind schedule.
In areas affected by the two issues election officials ordered polling stations to extend voting into a second day.
It was not clear how many polling stations were affected in the country that includes around 14 million registered voters.
“We are talking about isolated instances,” electoral commission chief Kwado Afari-Gyan told AFP. “It is not a mass problem.”
Spokesmen for the two main political parties expressed support for the commission, however some voters’ patience wore thin and there were yet more delays on Saturday.
One polling station visited by AFP opened some two hours after the scheduled 0700 GMT starting time.
At another polling station in the capital Accra on Saturday morning more than 100 people queued to cast their ballots, but the line had cleared by 1630 GMT, with polling agents saying everyone who arrived had been able to vote.
Official results from the elections had been expected as early as Sunday, but it was unclear whether that timeframe would remain after the extension.
There are a total of eight presidential candidates, which could result in a second-round runoff vote on December 28.
Ghana has had five elections since military rule ended in 1992, but the stakes are seen as higher this time, as commercial oil production that began in 2010 is set to expand.
Mahama, 54, of the National Democratic Congress, only took power in July, when his predecessor John Atta Mills died following an illness.
The 68-year-old Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party, the son of a former president, lost by less than one percentage point in 2008.
While the provisional results show the race virtually tied, NPP Secretary General Kwadwo Owusu-Afriyie nevertheless called on Mahama to accept defeat, “just as we did in 2008.”
“The people of the country have spoken. We believe victory will be ours,” he told journalists late Saturday.
Elections since the return to civilian rule have seen both parties voted out of office, establishing Ghana’s democratic credentials in a region that has seen its share of rigged polls and coups.
Ghana is also a top exporter of cocoa and gold, with economic growth of 14 percent in 2011. Eight percent growth is expected for 2012 and 2013.
How to spend Ghana’s oil money has been a key issue. Mahama has advocated a large investment in infrastructure, while Akufo-Addo has promoted his signature policy of free secondary education.