An elderly woman casts her ballot at the Bole polling station, in the Bole Bamboi constituency of Northern Ghana, on December 7, 2012. AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

ACCRA — This will not be the first. We have won a few important battles in the past but we lost the wars on the same day. It’s almost an accepted pattern in these parts–that the winner of a democratic election must fight another battle to affirm the general will of the people. The battle is won but the war is lost when we express any level of incredulity in our electoral systems and processes, to provide grounds for another contest after the ballot. Zambia is presently going through the motions.

Ghana went through a similar process a few years ago. We have lived with many paradoxes in this country, and we have placated ourselves with the equally paradoxical thinking that the problem that does not kill you only makes you stronger. In the end, though, we are not sure whether we have become stronger or we have merely gone through the motions. We spent eight months in court following pink sheets.

 

The governor and the governed

On a normal day in any election period, a satisfied voter may not at all be a satisfied Ghanaian. Apparently, a satisfied voter is a dangerous person, especially if the things that satisfy them have a carnal price. Those who have followed our checkered political history since the first republic, worry that if we negotiate a cheap price for our voting thumbs, we will be charting a thorny path for our people and our democracy.

In the 18th Century when Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) published ‘The Social Contract’, the idea that government attains its right to exist and govern by “the consent of the governed” was a radical one. Today, the inalienable sovereignty of the voter makes the governed more powerful than the governor. The voter wields considerable power and influence over politicians. When they come preaching prosperity and promising change every election year, they are primarily begging the voter for a contract.

Even by our standards, we are able to think alongside the likes of Rousseau–that the general will of the people should be evident in a well-ordered society, and that a vote is a necessary requirement in determining our supreme will. Rousseau thought wrong. Ours is not an ordered society, not to talk of a well-ordered one. Less than four months to general elections, we should be discussing quality debates, instead of vote buying.

 

Vote buying and national ID

A pre-electoral survey conducted by the Centre for Democratic Development (CDD) has revealed that the two major political parties, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) are involved in vote buying, with the ruling party recording 51 percent while the NPP’s activities account for some 32 percent. The survey did not report any pre-voting maneuvers in the campaigns of the other parties.

Responding to these concerns at the recent UNDP led Maendeleo Policy Forum, the Electoral Commissioner, Charlotte Osei, was loquaciously philosophical: “When someone buys your vote and comes to office, you suddenly expect that person to be an incorruptible leader. It is paradoxical.” The forum, which is part of the UNDP’s Regional Service for Africa, provides a space for international mediators, researchers and development practitioners, to discuss critical development issues in Africa.

It is important that we become more responsible the way we vote. We should not vote along ethnic lines but on issues. You should not expect politicians to buy votes because once they buy votes, you lose the power to complain,” she underscored. She also identified the lack of a national identification system as a hindrance in determining the citizenship of a voter and the already familiar problem of minors voting as adults.

 

Election folktales

In a well-ordered society, these things do not happen. We made an unpalatable cocktail of jokes out of stories that did the rounds during our previous elections, which included funny tales of party die-hards carrying coffins stuffed with already stamped ballot papers. They would deliver it to the next polling station in the adjoining town to be counted among genuine votes. Here too, we lived with a few paradoxes.

In the strongholds of some political parties, we made another cocktail of even funnier jokes. In total defiance of the principle of one man one vote, it was fashionable for a voter to ask another in an election period: “How many times have you voted today”?  It was part of the growing up process. It was even funnier when a candidate reported a zero vote at the polling station where he cast his ballot. “Do I hate myself so much that I would vote against for myself?”  We have lived with this paradox too.  

Thankfully, we have moved on. The growing up process has paid off and made us a better people–even in a society that is battling with open defecation. The CDD survey has some good news for us. Some 60 percent of Ghanaians have confidence in the Electoral Commission and trust it to deliver credible elections in December 2016. This is a good omen. With the constant bastardization of the EC, particularly against the person of the Commissioner, we were not expecting a pass mark for the election body.

 

Incumbency and honour

We expect the EC to win the battle in December 2016 and win the war, too. Can the EC or any other institution manipulate election results in favour of any presidential candidate or political organisation? The Zambians think so. Commissioner Osei recently told TV Talk Show host Paul Adom-Otchere that a polling agent is in a better position to steal the vote than the EC leadership. At this point even the naysayers believe her.

To deliver free and fair elections, however, the conduct of our political parties must be regulated in accordance with the law. At what point does the President’s ‘Accounting to the People’ nationwide tour morph into a political campaign? As president of the nation, does he abuse the incumbency advantage if he exercises what is ordinarily his presidential function–by commissioning a water plant in an election period?

The NPP is making a ‘dissension of a doit’ (case out of nothing or something small) with the incumbency argument. They did the same thing. So far, the most mature and decent political campaign is the PPP’s, according to Peace FM’s Kwami Sefa Kayi. Ace broadcaster Kwaku Sakyi-Addo agreed when he was asked the same question on GH One’s ‘The Lounge Show.’  The media have already chosen their president. They have chosen well.

 

22 COMMENTS

  1. What is sovereign about a vote? What is independent about the decision(s) of a voter? Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin studiously deliberates on both of these questions as he expertly teases out a fundamental idea about the essence of voting in a democracy, or in a republic, for that matter. In this essay the cognoscente Kwesi, weaves us through the topology of African elections, particularly Ghana’s, and we are forced to ask: At what point is a voter freely-willed to exercise his/her vote without being under the influence, say of money? More, is a vote under the influence of money any less valid or less sovereign or less freely-willed or less in one’s own [long-term] interest than another vote under the influence of an idea or a policy matter?

    Electoral Commissioner of Ghana, Charlotte Osei, labored through some reflection on the questions above: “When someone buys your vote and comes to office, you suddenly expect that person to be an incorruptible leader. It is paradoxical.”

    The problem here is that when one makes the decision to vote in one way or another, how can another challenge the decision without contradicting the essence of the vote, without contradicting the fundamental aspect of a freely-willed vote, which is that the holder of the vote has the sole right to make whatever decision(s) that fits his fancy – under the influence of money or an idea, or both, or neither.

    That is liberty. That is the right of sovereignty. Or is it not? But Kwesi has more in this regard.

    Enjoy.

  2. So, I think the issue of “Vote Buying,” which Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin raised must be separated from the issue of the “Sovereignty of the Vote.” I agree that the issue of voting under the influence of money (vote buying) cannot be discussed without a thorough understanding of the “right to vote.” The two seem contradictory. However, I think the right to vote, even if one sold his vote, is still a sovereign decision! That said, I believe that the difference here is a matter of perspective and also of legality. Can a democracy, or a republic, condone “Vote Buying” by a political party, even if voters are willing to sell their votes?

    Now, what exactly is “Vote Buying” if I may ask? In Ghana for example, I have heard, although I have never seen this myself, campaigns distribute bags of rice and bottles of vegetable oil at events. I am not so sure if this constitutes “Vote Buying” per se. The more accurate term might be “Vote Bribery.” But if it has anything to do with skewing the vote, how is this any different from paid-for ads by a political campaign pegged to tax-payers’ electricity poles around the city? If a campaign can use a television ad to convince one person to vote here or there, why can’t another campaign use a bag of rice here or there?

    Except, I suspect, that the idea of a campaign serving bottles of peanut oil at a campaign event looks more like a bribe than a campaign ad on a paid-for television network. I understand the sentiment, but what difference does it make if one campaign spends $100,000 dollars on bags of rice rather than a TV ad?

    In order to divulge ourselves of any bias in this analysis, one has to take the perspective of the voter. What difference does a TV ad or a bag of rice make to the voter? It depends. Well, herein lies the independence or the liberty of the voter and his/her decision. One can say both are bribes, although one looks more “corrupt” than the other.

    Which all together lead to the issue of “Money In Politics.” We either want it or we don’t. But if there should be money in politics, that is, if parties in a democracy must use money and resources to convince the voter, why must government dictate how this is done – through ads or bottles of peanut oil? Isn’t this an affront on liberty?

    My point is, in free and fair elections, I wonder if any one can actually prove “Vote Buying?” What is it? Can a campaign that gives out bottles of oil ascertain if voters actually voted for them or not on election day? In the same way can the campaign actually ascertain whether a TV ad worked or not on election day? Ultimately, it seems this is the decision of the voter! His independence as a voter, his sovereignty as a voter, is not in any way jeopardized since he still wields the power to vote for whomever at the booth, whether he receives a bag of rice or a dose of TV ads. It seems to me that rather the question here is the one we often lose sight of, the real issue at hand: That of “Money in Politics” and not the “Sovereignty” of the vote in particular.

  3. No. I don’t think it does. It can influence the decision-making process of the voter. Even then, I cannot say it’s here nor there. The “Sovereignty” of the voter is intact. That decision at the booth is still the voter’s choice. There’s no such thing as “Vote Buying” hence. Unless of course, the buyer takes the sellers ID and votes in the voter’s stead. That is, I think, a fraud. But are people bribed? Sure. Is bribery illegal? Sure. But then again this in itself does not in any shape or form infringe on the voter’s “Sovereignty”. That is the voter still has to make the decision in the voting booth (and the vote remains anonymous).

  4. I see. But if the voter is thus influenced by money, then the vote is “biased.” If it is biased, the vote cannot therefore be “independent.” Right?

  5. That is a thought Solomon Azumah-Gomez. “Biased,” is a vague word. And by “independence” I hope you are not referring to “randomness.” Please let me take that you mean “Sovereign” by “Independence.” Now, randomness is another hairy animal. If votes were truly random, it will be hard to choose a winner of an election in a country of 30 million tosses! Which brings me to the issue of “bias.” Of course, voters are biased. This is necessary in a democracy. Without bias, you cannot have a winner of any elections with a population large enough. Usually a few million. So this is quite weird, that in a democracy, bias is actually “independence.” Bias is actually the right of any voter! This is the whole issue of choice, and whether this bias it inculcated through a bag of rice or a TV ad is a non matter.

  6. I think though we can measure whether the bag of rice makes a difference in the election. If you take two otherwise equal villages and one gets bags of rice and the other doesn’t, if the former votes for the candidate and the latter doesn’t, we can conclude that the vote was biased because of the rice. A tv ad is definitely an act of persuasion and though it cost the same as thousands of bags of rice, there is no physical exchange of goods with a tv ad. Maybe that is what people object to: the physical exchange of one thing makes a greater case for the appearance of impropriety than a tv ad.

    Also there’s the sense that if a bag of rice could persuade voters, then these voters are vulnerable populations. Who are politicians to take advantage of their poverty? Maybe this is more of an ethical debate than one about sovereignty. Of course the voter still has the right to make whatever decision he chooses in the voting booth but is there something unsettling about the gift in exchange for a potential favor, even if there is no guarantee that the voter would return the favor?

  7. Another level of sophistication. A bag of rice and a TV ad are not the same. The difference is not insignificant! Thanks Abena Maanu.

  8. Well, for a careful analysis, let us first avoid the sentimental, which is that a bag of rice looks more “corrupt” than a tv ad. The issue about ethics and the voter’s vulnerability are nice, and they make for good soup, but they make for bad laws. This is why in the U.S. for example we have issues about Citizens United in which the bag of rice actually goes the other way, from the voter to the candidate, for “political favors.”

    Why is it bad for the voter to receive a bag of rice and not bad for the candidate to do so? Is it perhaps for the reason that this voter is poor? But if he’s poor, and by that even “vulnerable,” and makes a decision against his future, is that not his right? But if he makes a decision against his future, because of a bag of rice, is he suffering then from poverty or a lack of intelligence? Plus, whose perspective is this – the voter’s or the giver of a bag of rice or the public? Can a bag of rice or an ad change the Free Will of the voter?

    The experiment that Abena Maanu has proposed is apt. Very apt! I might add. This sociological study will be a case in point. But there’s a problem. We can not know what actually happens in a voting booth on election day no matter the simulation. But let me admit that I think the results of Abena’s simulation will result in bag-of-rice voters being biased. But the same simulation can be run for the ad-watchers-entourage voters and they will make similar decisions as those voters who receive a bag of rice. There’s something to be said then about the depth of influence of an ad or a bag of rice or both.

    This is the question. But “vulnerable,” can be vague. A low IQ voter is just as vulnerable in believing what an ad says in the way that a poor voter might be vulnerable in accepting a bag of rice. Either way, one is no better than the other. They both are under the “influence.” Although it seems that when the poor voter accepts his “influencing fix” he gets knocked all the time for being the “illogical” one. But why? Is it perhaps because he’s poor and cannot defend himself in the court of public opinion?

  9. I agree that money in politics is corrupt, no matter which shape it takes form. It is no less corrupt when the (wealthy) voters pay for political influence. If money can be rooted out both ways, it would result in a more perfect democracy rather than the scam systems plaguing the world now.

    We are especially concerned with vulnerable populations (the poor, the sick, the elderly, the children, the incarcerated, etc.) because we believe that they are not in the best of situations to make a decision against their futures. Their decisions are often of the immediate nature. If you are hungry, you will decide to eat. If you are sick, you will opt for the quickest medicine. Their situation usually means they will not use their intelligence for decision-making but only what is momentarily expedient. This is very logical but he might make a different decision if in a different situation. As a society, we should protect the vulnerable and we suspect that if you give a child candy or an orphan shelter, that would greatly influence her free will, in a different manner than when a person is not in a vulnerable situation. Sentimental, I know, but that’s life.

    I cannot argue with the fact that we cannot know what goes on in the voting booth, but certainly a bag of rice would have influence and I’m sure ad-watching would after a number of views but who is to say how many ads are necessary, but one bag of rice would likely be sufficient. As for low IQ voters, the uneducated might also be considered a vulnerable group. But that is another issue entirely, unless we are to give certain people free will based on “intelligence” which can hardly be accurately measured. I guess we are all destined to vote under the influence

  10. This is a very interesting as well as a contentious or controversial subject to discuss but at end of the day, it makes our democracy richer and open to our own benefit, thanks

  11. I’m really troubled by the following:

    “Even by our standards, we are able to think alongside the likes of Rousseau–that the general will of the people should be evident in a well-ordered society, and that a vote is a necessary requirement in determining our supreme will… Ours is not an ordered society, not to talk of a well-ordered one.”

    I’m not a good English speaker. Do I hear this French guy is better than us or is my bad English in play here?
    Do I hear that our society is not well ordered because we are not concrete jungles and we have not mastered the export of violence while keeping our home clean?

    For the record, the only reason I will accept others are “well ordered” than we are is the fact that we stopped or were forced to stop practicing our political systems and not because we have not mastered eurocentric politics.

  12. You are certainly correct Audu Salisu in that reading. Although I took it as because we have copied Eurocentric ideals and imposed it on African ones, we have, as a result, created chaos. Not a well ordered society. We have essentially imposed European methods of governance on African forms of governance. This alone is recipe for disaster!

  13. The vast majority of people are of average intelligence. Until we can identify the smart ones amongst us ourselves, not accepting the ones that Anglo-American universities impose on us as smart, we are going to have to accept average leadership and with it an average place under the Sun, at best!

  14. thanks Solomon Azumah-Gomez and Bernard Seth Tornyenyor. That is the thing. I think we need to stop thinking from right and wrong view point. Every system can be good or bad. But we take other people’s governance system thinking ours is bad or wrong

  15. Akosua M. Abeka, you see some of the reasons why I can’t stop itching for Grandmother Africa to become an African mouthpiece (i know u feel same Solomon Azumah-Gomez)? check the author’s conclusion.

    For the past month I have noticed that only PPP has got something close to a shadow government, explaining to people what they will do, how they will do them and how much it could cost.

    These bunch of noise makers are talking trash to each other and the whole mediocre media follows them.
    The author’s conclusion is the type of simple statement the so called media of Ghana should see, the ordinary person who reads it will quickly shift to thinking about a third alternative.

  16. I agree. I see it. Alternatives are necessary and it will take all of us to show that to our fellow people. The more we write, the more we make the case, and the more we share what we write with friends and family, the more informed people will become. This is the nature of Culture Work. Progress might be slow, but the impact can be supreme.

  17. Narmer Amenuti has done a great job, to my perspective. For one to use the word “buy” voters, i have a whole problem with the choice of word adopted and the context it placed in. When the word “buy- vote” is used then it right to connect it to the jeopardization of it sovereignty. “BUY” in economic & legal context is contractual, hence it create an environment of compulsion of an offer and acceptance under a legal binding. But voting in this instance never fall in such category at all, per the legal framework that governs the voting exercise in Ghana, this kind of voting exercise could not be categorize into such section. But could only deduce that, such effort of Politicians is to persuade, lobby or influence voting direction. On such juncture, we could build our argument from that line as the bases of our debate.

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