ACCRA, Dec 7 – Polls opened in Ghana’s high-stakes presidential and parliamentary polls on Friday as the emerging West African nation seeks to make good on its promise as a beacon of democracy in turbulent West Africa.
Long lines could be seen at some polling stations and some voters said they waited since the early hours for the tight election that sees President John Dramani Mahama face main opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo.
Ghana has had five elections since military rule ended in 1992, but the stakes are seen as higher than ever this time, as commercial oil production that began in 2010 is set to expand.
President Mahama, 54, of the National Democratic Congress, only took power in July, when his predecessor John Atta Mills died following an illness.
His challenger, 68-year-old Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party, lost by less than one percentage point in 2008, and insists he is poised to reverse that narrow defeat.
Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence from colonial rule in 1957, suffered a number of military coups before returning to democracy in 1992.
Both parties have since quit power after an election loss, establishing Ghana’s democratic credentials in a region that has seen its share of rigged polls and coups.
US President Barack Obama chose Ghana for his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa after taking office in 2009.
But analysts say that as Ghana’s democracy has deepened, the rivalry between the ruling NDC and challenger NPP has also intensified.
“Mutual loathing may be a good way to describe how the parties view each other,” said Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, a political science professor at the University of Ghana.
“Both parties have tasted power. They know what comes with power. If you capture the presidency, you control all the machinery of the state and unlike the past, we now have oil. The state coffers will be brimming.”
Voters will also be electing a new 275-seat parliament. The NDC won a narrow edge in seats over the NPP in the 2008 vote.
The names of six minor candidates also appear on the presidential ballot and could help force a runoff second-round vote.
One of the world’s newest oil producers, Ghana is also a top exporter of cocoa and gold, with economic growth of 14 percent in 2011.
Eight percent growth is expected for 2012 and 2013, according to the World Bank.
Voters are anxious to feel the benefits of the boom and Mahama insists he deserves a full four-year term to complete the project the NDC started in 2008.
In an interview with AFP, Akufo-Addo countered that the economic growth numbers under the NDC are “just figures on paper”.
They “are not reflecting anybody’s prosperity in Ghana. In terms of the actual standard of living and quality of life of our people, they are radically different from the GDP figures”, he said.
Political observers say the campaign has been the most policy-driven ever in the country of some 24 million people, but note that ethnic and regional allegiances are still crucial.
“There is always a bit of denial about the role of ethnic voting,” said Victor Brobbey, a research fellow at the Centre for Democratic Development, an Accra think tank.
Campaigning on regional lines is “not something you do openly here”, but both parties know they need a large turnout in their stronghold areas, he said.
The north, by far the poorest region and Mahama’s home area, is considered an NDC stronghold along with the eastern Volta region, while the NPP is dominant in the centre of the country.
The west and areas surrounding the capital Accra in the southeast are seen as swing districts, where, according to analysts, a more cosmopolitan electorate votes based on policy and political differences.
How to spend Ghana’s forthcoming oil money has been one of the key issues of the campaign, with Mahama advocating a large investment in infrastructure and Akufo-Addo fronting his signature policy of free secondary education.
Mahama has claimed that Akufo-Addo’s programme is unfeasible and experts have warned that pledging to fund education with oil revenue, which can fluctuate widely over time, could prove challenging.
But the challenger, who comes from eastern Ghana, insisted he is “not going to be intimidated by language about ‘oh, commodity prices will fall’,”.
Free secondary education “is what we want to do and we are definitely going to do it”, he told AFP.