ACCRA, Dec 7 – Ghanaians voted Sunday to choose the man who will succeed President John Kufuor, in an election that observers hope will reverse a worrisome series of African elections marred by intimidation and violence.,
An incident-free election in Ghana would come as welcome relief after the disputed vote in Kenya that left at least 1,500 people dead earlier this year and the current crisis in Zimbabwe, where the opposition candidate withdrew from the presidential runoff amid political violence.
"The election is important for Ghana and if people vote in a transparent manner, it will send a strong signal to break trends in Africa because a number of elections over the past few months have not reflected the will of the people," Nickolay Mladenov, a Bulgarian member of the EU parliament and chief of the European Union’s observer mission, told AFP.
Christopher Fomunyoh, of Washington’s National Democratic Institute (NDI), said: "After the debacle of Zimbabwe and challenges of Kenya, Ghana may provide the opportunity Africans have been looking for to externalise their pride."
"It would be historical if these watershed elections were well conducted in the country that was first to achieve independence on the African continent," he told AFP.
Ghana, which was known as the Gold Coast as a British colony, became independent in 1957.
"It’s significant for Africa, and for Ghana in particular, as it was one of the first countries to get independence and if it succeeds it adds a score for the continent," former Botswana president Ketumile Massire told AFP.
He was leading a team of election monitors from the Carter Center who observed the start of voting at the Saint Kizito Catholic School in Accra.
"There have been four elections and every successive election has been an improvement from the previous one, but there’s always room for more improvement," he said.
Seven presidential aspirants are vying in the polls — the country’s fifth since the return to multi-party democracy in 1992 — to succeed Kufuor, one of Africa’s most respected leaders who has to stand down after two terms.
But the real contest is between the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) of the fiery former ruler Jerry Rawlings, which was in power until the 2000 elections.
Nana Akufo-Addo, a 64-year-old lawyer from the NPP and John Atta-Mills, also 64, a law professor from the NDC, are the leading contenders for president.
"I am confident of winning this election," Atta-Mills told reporters as he cast his vote in Accra. "Parties are expected to accept the results if the conduct of the election is free, fair and transparent."
"There’s a bright furture for this country," Rawlings declared as he was mobbed by dozens of voters at a polling station who chanted: "Welcome Daddy. We want you back. We are hungry".
The parties of the two main presidential contenders have each had an eight-year stint in power, giving the electorate the chance to compare their respective records.
But Papa Kwesi Nduom, 55, a businessman and consultant representing the Convention People’s Party (CPP), could play the role of spoiler.
The election is expected to be close, with a second round scheduled for December 28 if necessary.
In Accra some polling stations opened on time and others were delayed by the late delivery of voting material.
Countrywide, some 22,000 polling stations will remain open until 1700 GMT and provisional results are expected to be made known within 72 hours.
Voters will also choose lawmakers to fill the 230 seats of the country’s parliament.