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Good news is no news?

Polling closed in Ghana’s parliamentary and presidential elections yesterday afternoon, and early results are beginning to roll in, showing a very close presidential contest between Nana Akuffo Addo of the ruling NPP and Professor John Atta Mills of the NDC. From the Ghana Elections twitter feed, which is being updated several times an hour, “Provisional results(Prez elections) from102 (out of 230)constituencies: NPP-48%; NDC-49%; Others-3%.” This is certainly the first Ghanaian election to be twittered, and you can get a picture of both the excitement of voters and the relative smoothness of the voting process by monitoring Ghanaian twitter feeds.

While I’ve been swimming in Ghanaian elections data for the past 48 hours, other bloggers have noted that there’s very little mainstream press attention to the elections. (I’ve made the same complaint in earlier posts.) Judith Townend quotes a commenter on Facebook who was disappointed that the quiet, peaceful and smooth voting got so little attention:

I was hoping, only hoping that for just a fraction of a moment the media cameras and the pens will slip from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe onto Ghana. Just a bit of positive reportage on Africa! That’s all I was hoping for. But I guess that’s not sensational enough for the Western media. “Ghana peacefully elects a new President”… that’s not headline stuff! It simply does not sell…

David Ajao offers a provocative headline – “Does Ghana Exist?” – but a more nuanced post. He sees strong election coverage on BBC and AlJazeera English, and weak coverage on CNN International, SkyNews and EuroNews. David finds CNN’s lack of attention particularly galling: “The Elections have been very peaceful and so I reckon CNN has nothing to report. Had 100 people lost their lives due to the elections, Ghana will be in their leading news headlines. For now, Ghana does not exist to them”

In approximately 72 hours, the news surrounding the election will be about who won, who lost and what this means. Papers like the New York Times – which thus far has only run a single wire story on the election – will probably offer some analysis at that point. But for now, the news is significantly more subtle – on a continent where elections that are both competitive and smooth are unfortunately rare, Ghana’s election has raised the bar for what we can and should expect from African elections.

Professor Joel Barkan, senior associate at the Africa Program of the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, DC, offers an analysis that helps put the Ghanaian election into perspective. He cites a definition of “mature democracy” as offered by Samuel Huntington, is that of “double alternation” – the ruling party is replaced by an opposition party, twice, in peaceful and democratic fashion. Ghana went through the first half of this alternation in 2000, when NPP won the election over the ruling NDC – should NDC win this election, peacefully, Ghana would have navigated a double alternation. The only other African nation to accomplish a peaceful double alternation post-colonialism is Zambia – Botswana’s admirable democracy has transfered power, but within a single ruling party, as has South Africa.

Barkan suggests that the Huntington definition may be a bit too narrow. He considers Botswana a mature democracy, “because it has had successful elections, it has a free press, an independent judiciary, low level of corruption, and it has an emerging legislature.” Ghana, Benin and South Africa fit this definition as well, and Barkan sees about fifteen others heading towards this high bar of good governance. But the Huntington test is a useful idea, precisely because it is so challenging:

Another aspect of a double alternation requires that candidates of at least two different political parties, government and opposition, are willing to accept defeat and abide by the ruling of the electoral commission. Secondly, they won’t do that unless you have an electoral commission that is highly competent, which is what you have in Ghana under Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, the commissioner of elections there.

Barkan isn’t the only one impressed by the election Afari-Gyan is overseeing. One of the most impressive aspects of the election is domestic monitoring efforts. CODEO – the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers, a group of 34 civil society organizations – has deployed more than 4,000 trained election observers to the country’s polling stations. These observers are using mobile phones to report any voting irregularities to a central office, and are conducting a parallel vote tally. This involves totalling the votes from a statistically selected set of polling stations – if that tally is close to the official tally, in terms of percentage distributions, it goes a long way to verifying the election’s accuracy, without doing a full parallel vote count. Katrin Verclas, the founder of MobileActive – an international community of social activists innovating around mobile phones – is part of the CODEO team and reports:

An observer from the EU noted that the system CODEO and NDI developed was by far ‘the most impressive’ election observation system using mobile tech that he had seen. And the news so far from the Rapid Response Observers is encouraging: There have been few incidence and voting is going largely smoothly.

Whether or not the Ghanaian election brings about a “double alternation”, it’s an understandable point of pride for Ghanaians, and a source of hope for anyone who’s working for a peaceful, stable, democratic future for the continent. It’s true – there’s very little drama thus far surrounding the elections, and that no news is very good news indeed. But the lack of attention to a smooth, peaceful election reinforces stereotypes about Africa. Most non-Africans assume that African elections are rigged, violent or both – a nice heavy dose of good news from Ghana could go a long way to counter those preconceptions.

2 thoughts on “Good news is no news?”

  1. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Voting again… and again… in Ghana

  2. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Celebrating the inauguration

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