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  • Ghana’s Encouraging ElectionsA Major Step Forward
  • Terrence Lyons (bio)

On 7 December 1996, President Jerry Rawlings won his second multiparty election in Ghana, completing another important step in the building of sustainable political and economic institutions in that West African state. Previous elections, in 1992, ended in charges of fraud and an opposition boycott of the 200-seat, unicameral National Assembly. This time, however, important reforms in the electoral system and a spirited campaign by an opposition coalition gave Ghanaians a meaningful choice on election day. The opposition won a third of the seats in the Assembly, and can use this base both to scrutinize the Rawlings government and to build more effective political parties for subsequent elections.


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Figure 1.

Courtesy of the U.S. State Department

While the election received less attention than it deserved in the international media, Ghana offers a series of hopeful lessons for African states struggling with the challenges of macroeconomic structural adjustment programs (SAPs) and the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. The case of Ghana also highlights the tendency in a number of African countries for soldiers who seized power through coups to reinvent themselves as democratic leaders. In such West African states as Niger, Togo, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Gambia, military leaders have remained in power in part by manipulating elections or by forcing the opposition to withdraw. President Rawlings of Ghana, a former air force officer, has cultivated a rural base of support that has allowed him to go from coup leader to winner of two multiparty elections—all while steering the country through a difficult period of economic reform.

Ghana has served as the preeminent test case of structural adjustment [End Page 65] in Africa. Following the virtual collapse of the formal economy in the early 1980s, the Rawlings government reversed its populist policies and adopted an SAP with the strong encouragement of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and bilateral donors. The results were dramatic. The country’s GDP grew at rates of 6 to 7 percent annually from 1984 to 1988—the highest in sub-Saharan Africa at that time. These considerable economic accomplishments, however, began to stall in the early 1990s. The disputed 1992 elections and the subsequent opposition boycott of parliament raised questions about stability and made private investors wary [End Page 66] .

The stakes in the 1996 election, therefore, were high. As the Financial Times put it: “If Ghana falters in its trailblazing role, not only will international confidence in the continent’s capacity to recover be jolted, the credibility of the donors’ development strategy for Africa will also be eroded.” 1 Ghana could not afford to stand pat, and still less to repeat the contentious 1992 elections.

The Rule of Rawlings

To evaluate the transition in Ghana, it is necessary to understand the degree to which both economic and political institutions had deteriorated by the time of Rawlings’s 31 December 1981 coup. Ghana had achieved independence in 1957 with a per-capita income roughly equal to South Korea’s. Over the next 25 years, however, disastrous import-substitution strategies, sagging export revenues, rampant corruption, and statism laid waste to the economy. Between 1974 and 1981, for example, GDP dropped 15 percent and cocoa exports, the leading source of foreign exchange, shrank by more than 40 percent.

The independence movement in Ghana was led by Kwame Nkrumah and his Convention People’s Party (CPP). In 1966, after a decade of increasingly authoritarian rule, a coup toppled him. Following an election three years later, the military returned power to civilians. The winners of this election, Prime Minister Kofi A. Busia and his Progress Party, ruled for just over two years. Senior military officers retook power in early 1972. In June 1979, then-Flight Lieutenant Rawlings led the Armed Forces Revolution Council in a junior-officers’ putsch. Later that year, Rawlings handed power over to President Hilla Limann and his People’s National Party (PNP), the winners of national elections. It was Limann whom Rawlings overthrew on the last day of 1981. 2

This thumbnail sketch shows that elections and established political parties are as much...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 65-77
Launched on MUSE
1997-04-01
Open Access
No
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