Ghana's 2020 elections solidify prolonged period of democratic rule


In December 2020 Ghanaians will go to the polls to elect a president and members of the National Assembly. The incumbent head of state and leader of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP), President Nana Akufo-Addo, is seeking re-election. He will take on former President John Dramani Mahama, who was elected as the candidate for the main opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC). This will mark the third time the two politicians have faced each other, with then-Vice President Mahama having defeated Akufo-Addo in 2012 and Akufo-Addo having beaten Mahama in 2016.

The event will be the seventh general election since the return to full democracy in 1996, with all of the general elections since then having been carried out in a peaceful, free and fair manner with minimal security and few concerns. As a presidential and unitary republic with a unicameral legislature and independent judiciary, Ghana also recognises the importance of its regions, each of which have their own assemblies and local government units.


The period known as the fourth republic commenced in January 1993, using the 1992 constitution as its foundation, which built on the experiences of the periods of military rule, as well as the first, second and third republics. The first republic, which lasted from 1960 to 1966, followed the colonial period. Kwame Nkrumah and his Convention People’s Party held power until they were overthrown by a military coup led by Lieutenant General Joseph Ankrah of the National Liberation Council. Civilian rule returned under the second republic in 1969 following an election held that year. During the period, the government was headed by Prime Minister Kofi Abrefa Busia and Ceremonial President Edward Akufo-Addo. However, another military coup in 1972 instigated by Colonel Ignatius Koto Acheampong brought an end to the brief republican period and a return to military rule.

Elections and a new constitution marked the beginning of the third republic in 1979. Hilla Limann of the People’s National Party (PNP) were victorious at the ballot box, but only governed the country for two years, when Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of the Provisional National Defence Council led a coup in December 1981. Rawlings remained in power as the military head of state for more than a decade, before allowing a consultative assembly to draw up a new constitution and putting it to a vote at a nationwide referendum in 1992. With 92.59% voting in favour, May of that year saw an end to the ban on multi-party politics, and Rawling’s own ruling party formed the NDC to contest future elections.

The next period is often considered a transitional democratic phase, with elections in 1992 considered flawed and boycotted by all of the main opposition parties. With the result a foregone conclusion, Rawlings became the civilian president and the NDC captured all but 17 places in the 200-seat Parliament. The next elections held in 1996 took place in a more stable democratic arena, with full opposition participation, and saw Rawlings re-elected for his second and final term as president. Ghana has held presidential and parliamentary elections since – in 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 – all conducted under the same constitutional arrangements.


The president is both head of state and head of government, as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Candidates are elected directly by universal suffrage for a four-year term. The vice-president is chosen by the presidential candidate to run on a joint ticket. The voting age for all elections is 18 years. There is a two-term limit for presidents. A run-off second round of voting is required if no candidate gains more than 50% of the ballot in the first round.

Once in office, the president appoints the Council of Ministers, or Cabinet. The president also appoints the members of a number of advisors and advisory bodies, such as the National Security Council (NSC). In addition, he is advised by the House of Chiefs – representing tribal chieftains – and the Council of State, made up of 25 prominent citizens. Among these are members from each of the 16 regions of the country, elected indirectly by electoral colleges formed in each region (see below). The current president is the son of former Ceremonial President Edward Akufo-Addo. The vice-president is Mahamudu Bawumia, a former deputy governor of the Bank of Ghana, the country’s central bank.

The president may issue executive orders, sign treaties, grant pardons and declare a state of emergency, in addition to being chief executive of the government. He or she has wide-ranging powers of appointment, including for the Chief Justice and members of the Supreme Court, after consultation with the Cabinet and the approval of Parliament. This legislature also has the power to remove the president after constitutional due process, with a two-thirds majority vote. The president’s residence and office is called Jubilee House – formerly the Flagstaff House – and is situated in the capital, Accra. Previously, the site hosted the administrative activities of the British Gold Coast government.


The Parliament of Ghana is a unicameral assembly, consisting of 275 members and the speaker of Parliament. Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected by universal suffrage in single-member constituencies according to a first-past-the-post system. Terms are four years, with no limit on the number of terms. The speaker, a position currently held by Aaron Mike Oquaye, is appointed by the majority party in Parliament, in consultation with other parties, and cannot themselves be an MP.

Parliament has the power to make laws and scrutinise the performance of the president and the Cabinet. It may also control public finances via debate on the government budget, although – according to Article 108 of the constitution – it may not introduce financial legislation of its own. Parliament also examines government appointments and gives or withholds its consent for a range of senior positions in the executive, judiciary and civil service. Much of this work is done in committee, with Parliament home to a range of these bodies, looking at issues from foreign policy to judicial appointments.


The country’s law is largely based on English common law, with Ghanaian customary law governing certain matters of personal relationships and contracts. The judicial hierarchy is also closely modelled on the British example. The highest court is the Supreme Court of Ghana, under which the Court of Appeal, then the High Courts of Justice, and finally 16 regional tribunals sit. The inferior court system includes circuit courts, magistrate’s courts and specialised bodies, such as juvenile courts.

There is also a system of traditional courts, which deal only with matters related to chieftaincy. These courts may also make a final appeal to the Supreme Court. The system of tribal chiefs is guaranteed under the constitution, with the House of Chiefs acting as an advisory body on all matters of customary law and chieftaincy.

The Supreme Court consists of nine judges, plus its head, the Chief Justice, who is also the head of the overall Ghanaian judiciary. All of its members are appointed by the president after consultation with the Judicial Council and the granting of parliamentary approval. The current Chief Justice is Sophia Akuffo. She is the second woman to hold the post after Georgina Wood, her predecessor.

Regional & Local Government

Following a referendum in February 2019, the number of regions was expanded from 10 to 16. The six new regions were carved from four already existing regions, including Brong Ahafo, which was split into three; the Northern Region, also split into three; and the Western Volta Regions, which were divided into two new regions. These regions are important political institutions, enshrined in a constitution which sought to move away from the highly centralised states that characterised previous military regimes.

The president appoints one minister for every region to serve on the Council of Ministers. In addition, an electoral college in each of the regions, made up of two nominated councillors from that region, elects a representative to the Council of State. The Council of State is one of the main advisory bodies to the president. Under the constitution, at least 10% of total government revenue must go to the regions, via the District Assemblies Common Fund. Further fiscal decentralisation was also slated to take place by the end of 2019, with decentralisation also enshrined in the constitution itself.

The highest political bodies within the regions are the assemblies. Of these, there are three types: metropolitan, for urban areas with populations of over 250,000 people; municipal, for single towns with populations of 95,000 or more; and district, for a wider area that encompasses towns and villages. All have the same structure, with 70% of their members elected directly by the constituency and 30% appointed by the president. MPs from the region are also ex-officio members of the relevant assembly. A District Chief Executive leads the assembly, along with an executive committee.

Each regional local government is also on top of a further hierarchy, descending through town, area, zonal and unit committees. There are approximately 16,000 unit committees, which represent the lowest level of the political structure. These lower levels also consist of a combination of elected and appointed members; however, they do not hold any legislative powers and act rather as agencies of implementation for regional policies.

Recent Elections

The most recent general elections for the presidency and the National Assembly were held on December 7, 2016. These were supervised and administered by the Electoral Commission of Ghana. There were seven candidates in the first round of the presidential race, with the majority of the votes going to the candidates of the country’s two main parties – the NPP and the NDC. Voter turnout was estimated at 69.25%.

The NPP candidate, the current incumbent, won 53.72% of the vote, meaning that a second round was unnecessary. The defeated NDC candidate, former President Mahama, ran with Kwesi Amissah-Arthur as vice-president. They gained 44.53% of the vote and conceded defeat the day the official results were declared. In the Assembly, some 1144 candidates contested the 275 seats, with the NPP and NDC once again securing a significant share. The NPP secured 52.5% of the national vote to the NDC’s 42.34%, with nine other parties and a number of independents all failing to win seats. The elections showed some apparent divergences between different regions. Volta, for example, remained loyal to the NDC, with some 80.97% voting for Mahama, while 75.98% of Ashanti voted for Akufo-Addo. The capital region of Greater Accra was more balanced, with 52.42% voting for the NPP candidate. Broadly speaking, the north and east went to the NDC – Mahama is from Bole in Northern Region – and the south and west for the NPP.


The next elections are scheduled to take place in December 2020. It is likely that there will once again be a closely fought contest between the NPP and NDC, with Mahama and Akufo-Addo facing off for the third consecutive time. Akufo-Addo’s outright victory in 2016 has been attributed to voter dissatisfaction about an economic slowdown precipitated by the global decline in the price of Ghana’s main export commodities.

The state of the economy continues to be a key topic, which is likely to decide the outcome of the election. According to a December 2019 survey by non-partisan research institution Afrobarometer, unemployment and the management of the economy were identified by Ghanaians as two of the five major concerns facing the country. On paper, the NPP has a lot of positive economic indicators it can point to, with reduced top-line inflation, high GDP growth figures and a reduced government deficit. However, the opposition will seek to capitalise on dissatisfaction with personal living conditions, high youth unemployment and a widening income gap.

Corruption was another issue that played a big role in the 2016 election. Early on the administration of President Akufo-Addo appointed a special prosecutor for pursuing corruption cases, with an anti-graft office headed by Attorney General Martin Amidu. This was heralded as a positive development; however, survey data from 2019 showed that a majority (53%) of Ghanaians felt that corruption had increased in the past year, with only 19% feeling a decrease. There was a 27-percentage-point drop in approval ratings regarding the government’s performance in fighting corruption between 2017 and 2019, with 40% of respondents considering the government to be doing a “fairly” or “very” good job when it comes to tackling corruption.

Nonetheless, corruption ranks low among the list of most important problems, with only 5% of surveyed Ghanaians selecting it as their first choice. A more important issue is infrastructure development, which was identified by 59% of respondents as a key issue. This was followed by education, which was selected by 38% of respondents as either the first, second or third most important topic that required government attention. With the current administration’s significant investment in free senior high school for all (see Education chapter) and a number of big infrastructural expansion projects under way (see Transport chapter), it is likely that voters’ evaluations of these efforts and the state of the economy will decide whether Akufo-Addo manages to defeat John Mahama for a second time in 2020.

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