In this article, Abigail Larbi-Odei, Programme Manager for Media and Good Governance, reflects on the apparent low-level interest in the district assembly elections in Ghana by major election stakeholders.
In the last few days, several national issues have dominated media headlines and public discourse. From the visit of the US Vice President to Ghana; the adrenaline rush by Ghana’s Parliament to pass the three tax bills; attempts by the National Democratic Congress to torpedo the approval of six newly appointed ministers; to the failed attempt by the Electoral Commission to make the Ghana card the sole document for voter registration ahead of the 2024 national elections amidst takes on Ghana’s economy and IMF.
For the key players in Ghana’s near-political duopoly – the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the main opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) – the elections clock for the presidential and parliamentary elections is automatically re-set immediately after the end of an election and so since 2020, they have been super busy strategizing, chastising and competing each other on all fronts.
But there is the other bigger ‘vote’ — the 2023 district-level elections – which appears lost on us in the cacophony of all the “important” subjects. Ghana’s Electoral Commission has a major assignment this year to conduct elections for the renewal of the mandate of local assembly members or election of new ones across the various Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs). But as yet how much do we know about this? Although expected to hold this year, the electoral hype has been hinged on the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections.
Ghana’s District Assembly Elections Act of 1994, stipulates that “District Assembly elections (DLE) are held every four years and shall be held at least six months apart from parliamentary elections.” Be that as it may, district assembly elections in Ghana, have been held in 1988/89, 1994, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2015 and 2019; obviously showing a certain pattern by Ghana’s Electoral Commission to hold the elections averagely the year preceding the general presidential and parliamentary elections.
While local-level elections present the most practicable opportunity for citizens to participate actively in selecting their local representatives to the various metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies and contribute to local government decision-making, it has rather gained notoriety for apathy and disinterest. Consistently, the turnout figures have been fluctuating, most of the time producing less than half of the turnout in presidential and parliamentary elections. Below is a table presentation of the voter turnout for local-level elections over the years in Ghana.
It’s more than 600 days to the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections. However, citizens’ interest in the presidential and parliamentary elections is blazingly overshadowing the local-level elections this year. The Electoral Commission has the mandate to announce the date for the district-level elections as well as the timelines for the processes leading to it. However, as of the time of this publication, there is yet to be any official announcement of the date for the 2023 district-level election & timelines for electoral processes leading to the D-day, except for grapevine reports that it could be held in October. For instance, the landing page of the website of the Electoral Commission (as of March 31, 2023) showed only information on the 2020 presidential and parliamentary elections with a ticking time count down to the 2024 presidential elections. The EC’s 197.9k follower-Twitter handle and Facebook page have no posts yet on the district-level elections either.
While this may not legally constitute a breach of the constitutional provision regarding the time frame allowed between the conduct of parliamentary elections, a 2015 report by the Ghana Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO) observed that “Arguably, the absence of a specified timeframe for the conduct of the DLE (district level election), unlike the parliamentary elections may be a contributing factor for the EC’s laxity in preparations for the conduct of those elections”. For instance, in 2015, the district-level election was postponed two times from the originally announced date of November 2014. It was moved to March 3, 2015, and then eventually held on September 1, 2015. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that when the elections were postponed, some female candidates lost the interest to re-contest when the polls were re-opened. Even in 2019, the initially announced date of November 26 was later postponed to December 17.
Again, as of March 31, 2023, the sector Ministry in charge of local governance – Ministry of Local Government, Decentralization and Local Government – had no information or message on the district-level elections on its website. Same with the website of the Ministry of Information, the Local Government Service (LGS) and the newly created Ghana Today website by the Information Services Department.
What is worse, about 90% of the websites and Facebook pages of the country’s 261 Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) who have a core mandate to ensure citizens’ participation in local governance, were yet to have any information or message on the district-level elections either.
December 7 is noted as the specific date for presidential and parliamentary elections in Ghana. For the district-level elections, there’s no such stipulated date, contributing to low-level interest and awareness in the local-level polls. Again, the EC’s dependence on government’s financial support to conduct the elections remains a concern.
There is no doubt that Ghana’s local government system requires reforms. Indeed, in 2019, the country failed in its attempt to amend Article 243 of the Constitution, which gives the President, the power to appoint all Metropolitan, Municipal, and District Chief Executives (MMDCEs) to make these positions elective. A referendum to seek citizens support to amend Article 55 of the Constitution (an entrenched provision), which bans political parties from participating in local-level elections and make such elections partisan was also suspended. In a graphic online publication of August 2020, the former local government minister, Hajia Alima Mahama, assured that the NPP government will ensure the partisan election of Metropolitan, Municipal and District Chief Executives (MMDCEs) in its second term in office.
Ironically, a 2021 survey by CDD-Ghana on citizens support for election of Metropolitan, Municipal, and District Chief Executives (MMDCEs) showed that more than seven in 10 Ghanaians (76%) favour the election of MMDCEs while Seventy-one (71%) percent of Ghanaians said they prefer that MMDCEs be elected on a non-partisan basis.
While we wait for such weightier reforms to take place, the mandated national institutions, civil society, media and citizens should continue to engage the discourse on local governance processes. Can the Electoral Commission proceed to make public the date for the 2023 district-level elections early enough to allow citizens to prepare and actually participate? Can MMDAs, as part of their mandate to ensure citizens participation in local governance, team up with the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) to utilize their communication and information disclosure platforms to sensitise citizens and create more visibility and awareness about the elections? Can the media consciously incorporate conversations about the District Level Elections on their platforms early enough? Because this is also important for our collective civic responsibility.