More transparency, less trust? : Elections in Ghana

Once again the world looks on to get another democratic inspiration from Ghana, the beacon of stable governance in Africa, as she heads to the presidential and parliamentary polls on 7th December 2016. As usual, the ‘red-carpeted’ run-up to the elections is paced by many policy discussions about Ghana’s electoral system and whether it is resilient enough to safeguard the democratic gains over the years. One of these discussions was the 2nd edition of the Advancement Lecture Series held on the campus of University of Cape Coast, not very far away from my office at the Institute for Development Studies. Using the elections in Ghana as the core focus for discussion here, shall we address the question raised in the headline here.

Image; Forbers

At that event, the Executive Director of the Institute for Democratic Governance is quoted to have said that: “[‘If you see how transparent our election system is now…no country has the transparency we have in Ghana……..the more our system has become transparent the higher the mistrust’]”. The first and second sections of this statement are quite instructive and a 2016 Freedom House rating suggests that perhaps Ghana’s electoral system is freer and fairer than the US electoral system. However, the latter part about mistrust is a huge paradox that caught my attention. In fact, a review of news commentary on the Ghanaian airwaves will suggest this paradox. Well, my intention in this article is not to confirm or challenge the statement, as this in itself is a matter of controversy as some surveys may suggest otherwise. My intention however is to proffer some analysis as to how such a paradox can be explained in the Ghanaian context and what that could mean for the progression of Ghana’s democracy.

I approach this analysis from the viewpoint of Ivan Krastev, a renowned Bulgarian political scientist who wrote the book; “In Mistrust We Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don’t Trust Our Leaders?”. In the book Ivan Krastev, contends that the global picture shows more and more societies all over the world are losing confidence in their democratic institutions. In that case, this is probably not just a problem for Ghana. In general, due to corruption perception, many other institutions that represent Ghana’s democracy risk losing the trust of the citizens.  However, it is worthy focussing on electoral institutions because elections are fundamental to democratic practice and stability.  So the big question is, why should there be higher mistrust in the electoral process despite more transparency?

Well, I will start by arguing that, maybe what is observed in Ghana is not a decline in trust, but rather a non-improvement in level of trust commensurate with the increase in transparency. We would expect that once we have more transparency, then there should be more trust. However, due to adaptation, this is not a guarantee; and this is not just related to elections. Consider for instance, how happiness is expected to increase with more income. However, research has shown that, beyond a particular threshold, increase in income does not necessarily add any more to happiness or well-being of the person that gains it. People become used to wealth or may have no more value in it as it increases. This paradox, likened to the Easterlin paradox, is even stronger when the person getting richer compares poorly to other peers in the same wealth bracket. Now, if we transpose this analogy to Ghana’s electoral progress we can probably understand what is happening. Ghanaians have become so used to the transparency of our electoral process, that we are no longer enthused by any more improvements. Besides, if we compare ourselves to other electoral democracies in our league (our democracy league, NOT our continent) we feel there is more we can do. Adaptation is probably making Ghanaians place less value on more transparency.

A second possible explanation is the issue of more transparency breeding more suspicion. Ivan Krastev, explains that, there is nothing more suspicious than someone telling you; ‘now let me tell you the whole truth’. The suspicion in Ghana has hit our early voting processes, despite the fact that all political parties are allowed to attach their seal to such ballots pending their counting after the main elections. Moreover, in Ghana, the EC has given access to all political parties to observe the collation of presidential ballots. Nevertheless, in 2012, just like in many other election years, this did very little to allay the fears of political parties about the authenticity of these collated results. The explanation could be this simple; ‘if the EC is giving me all this information; what else is it not telling me or do I not know?’ Hence, the more the electoral system is made transparent, the higher the tendency for political stakeholders to be suspicious, especially opposition parties. On a continent where incumbents use their legislative and executive powers to block any electoral reforms towards transparency, it breeds more suspicion that the incumbent in Ghana will many times allow for reforms towards transparency, for example in the case of recent electoral law reforms in Ghana.

A third explanation is that, trust is very fragile and that it is far easier to lose trust than to build it. All over the world, the onset of a scandal erodes people’s trust in their institutions and it is difficult for this to be reversed in the aftermath, even if there are better systems and remedial measures put in place. In Ghana’s case the recent judicial reviews that have engulfed the operations of the electoral commission have opened up the electoral process for public ridicule because of the ‘few’ faults identified in its operations. From the 2012 heavily and extensively contested presidential election results to this year’s pre-election aspirant disqualification suits, the phenomenon of a ‘few small holes sinking a big ship’ has typified our electoral process. In effect, any remedial actions in the aftermath have not been successful to restore public trust.

In conclusion, due to these imposing forces, there is probably not much that can be done to improve Ghanaians’ confidence in our electoral process. However, it is still outstanding on the continent and among its democratic peers. Therefore, the electoral commissions best bet is perhaps to strive not to fall any lower in this year’s election, whist hoping that the political stakeholders would be magnanimous enough to acknowledge that effort. The elections in Ghana shall prove to be a test for them in more ways than one.

Dennis Penu

Dennis Penu

Staff Writer at InPRA
Dennis Penu is a Ghanaian, and a Senior Research Assistant with the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. He holds an advanced master degree in Governance and Development studies from the University of Antwerp in Belgium and is set to receive another master’s degree in Peace and Development Studies from the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.
Dennis Penu

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  1. […] Prior to Ghana’s  general elections peacefully organised and concluded between 7-10 December 2016, the run-up to the event was marked by high levels of stakeholder suspicion for the electoral process. This was a huge paradox considering that Ghana’s electoral process was among the world’s most transparent. I wrote an opionion article seeking to proffer some explanations for this and it was published through two of Ghana’s media outlets; MyJoyonline and Citifmonline. It was also published by the international policy analysis  think-thank, InPRA. Find the article here […]