Opinion: Why I will vote Yes – a distinguished journalist makes the case for partisan local elections Featured

By Nana Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng November 29, 2019 2183 598 comments

In a few weeks’ time Ghanaians will vote in a referendum to determine whether elections to local government bodies should be on a partisan basis and, frankly, I am perplexed at the way things are turning out for the ballot. One would have thought that the nation would embrace the opportunity to extend our democratic practice through political parties to the grass roots. It comes as a shock to see, read and hear people expressing very negative ideas about this possibility.

I say it is strange – but also understandable, in the current climate of apparent cynicism and discontent with the political class. I think what is happening is that people are using this referendum to vent their feelings about politicians, political parties and even the political process.

Over the past few years, the consensus appears to have solidified that politicians are out to feather their own nest, instead of fighting for the betterment of the people. Social media is awash with opinions and statements virtually condemning democracy, while praising strong-arm and authoritarian regimes because, in the eyes of so many people, “We can’t eat democracy.” They say that authoritarian regimes appear to do better at feeding their people and responding to basic needs. Ghana’s democratic credentials, which have won admiration around the world, appear to count for less at home.

The NPP/NDC factor

The reason for this apparent disaffection is not difficult to find. The two biggest political parties, the New Patriotic Party and National Democratic Congress, which between them have governed this country throughout the current Fourth Republic, have not covered themselves with glory. People see them as extremist and unwilling to work together. Their behaviour has sometimes driven us to the edge, and every election season comes with panic and fear of something terrible about to happen.

They accuse each other of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence, but in office appear to do little about this bad situation. These are some of the reasons why people appear to be turning away from democracy as a preferred system of government.

However, for all that, there is no doubt that despite the misgivings, the 1992 constitution has given us the longest period of uninterrupted civilian rule in our country since independence. Much of that is due to the fact that the two leading parties have taken turns at government, instead of one party being in power for ever as is the case in several African countries. Personally, I believe that we ought to celebrate and defend our democracy more robustly.

The arguments

The issue at stake in the referendum is whether elections to local government bodies should be conducted through political parties, as is the case of elections to the national parliament. We have heard many prominent people and institutions canvassing for the No vote. Their arguments follow two main reasons.

One is that allowing multiparty elections at the lower rungs of government would lead to a replication of the negativity associated with political parties at the national level. The other is cost, which is feared will spiral out of control if people spend as they do during primaries and substantive elections at the national level.

I don’t think that the solution to bad behaviour by the two main political parties is to limit multiparty elections to only the national level. Citizens’ freedom to form or join political parties comes from our right of free association, which is a fundamental human right.

In Parliament, political parties enable like-minded
people to come together to formulate ideas for the purpose of making new law. Why are we denying ourselves these democratic benefits at the local level?

To truncate multiparty politics at any level is to deny citizens a very important human, political and civic right. In other words, the No vote may be aimed at preventing NPP and NDC from extending their so-called bad behaviour to the local assemblies. Yet in reality, it is a vote against a God-given right.

I think we all have to wake up and smell the strong whiff of cocoa. Local-level elections are partisan right down to the colours the candidates use in their election posters. Political parties operate in all constituencies across the country and it would be abnormal if they were not involved in local-level elections. Frankly, they are. Voters know which candidates have been sponsored by which party or even factions of the same party. It is hypocritical to pretend that politics is a saintly business at the local level.

Don’t we need opposition?

Here is the thing: in the main, we opted for a multiparty democratic system with the adoption of the 1992 constitution; in almost all democracies of this nature, there is no restriction on citizens forming or joining political parties for the purpose of contesting for seats at the lower levels of government. In fact, the principle is to go as far down as possible to entrench the ideals of multiparty norms in society as a whole.

I suspect that some advocates of the No vote fear that local councils will split into “government” and “opposition” seats, which could lead to disunity and tension. In reality, we need opposition at every level of governance to ensure that power is checked and that people entrusted with power do not become dictators and despots. We need this system of government and opposition – you can call it “majority and minority” – to check power at all levels.

The truth is that political parties play a key role in our democracy. They help us to mould our ideas into presentable shape so that people can understand them and think about them before accepting or rejecting them at elections. In the same way, parties present these ideas to the public in a way that builds up public opinion for specific ideas, programmes or even projects.

In Parliament, political parties enable like-minded people to come together to formulate ideas for the purpose of making legislation. Why are we denying ourselves these democratic benefits at the local level? My argument is that we either scrap political parties altogether or allow them to operate at all levels. In truth, assemblies without political parties become assemblies without politics!

We have to acknowledge the fears some people have raised about the undue influence of political parties and the money issues which come with that dominance. In the main, none of that will be cured by perpetuating the charade of non-party elections to local assemblies. The solution lies in tighter regulations and how they are monitored. Ultimately however, how our political parties behave depends on us. It is not as if the political parties are operated by an alien force from outer space.

We have a choice. If we want local government forums to be dynamic, democratic and functioning entities we have to allow political parties to operate at that level and participate openly in elections. Political parties are the only organised means by which public opinion is formulated and propagated and this is true of all levels. We have a choice: if we want decentralisation to be democratic, real and complete, we have to vote Yes.

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Last modified on Friday, 29 November 2019 15:39


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