In many ways, Ghana’s political scene is one of its most recognisable defining features. Descriptions of the country, including this report, often stress the fact that Ghana, in contrast to many of its neighbours, has had two decades of stable democracy, with free and open elections, comparatively low levels of corruption and a lack of broader social instability. This, combined with rapid economic growth, has helped bolster investment, as have strong relations with the likes of the UK, the US, the EU and, increasingly, emerging powers such as China, India and South Africa. In fact, the country often punches above its weight in the diplomatic arena.

This is not to say that Ghana has been immune from political turbulence and coups in the past, but it has made significant progress in recent decades towards ensuring a sustainable foundation for democratic growth. This has been made all the more evident following the death of President John Atta-Mills from cancer in July 2012, with a peaceful and smooth transition of power to the vice-president, John Dramani Mahama. While the passing of Atta-Mills will add a new dimension to the parliamentary and presidential elections in December 2012, the broader business of state has been left largely untouched.

POLITICAL HISTORY: The European presence in Ghana began with the arrival of Portuguese traders in the late 15th Century, followed by the first British trade mission in the mid-16th Century and various other European powers, all of whom took control of parts of what became known as the Gold Coast. Over time, the British gradually took over most European trading forts along the coast and then extended their rule inland, fighting a series of wars against the Ashanti peoples in the interior of the country during the 19th Century. Britain eventually established control over all of what is now modern Ghana, consisting of the Gold Coast colony, the so-called Northern Protectorate and British Togoland, a German colony until 1922. These areas were administered separately but they came together upon independence to form modern Ghana.

The country has gained a reputation as a beacon of stability and democracy in the region, particularly when compared to other West African states such as Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Senegal, which in recent times have variously been afflicted by civil wars, ethnic and religious violence, and difficult political transitions. However, Ghana had an initially turbulent post-independence history, marked by repeated military coups. In 1957 the country gained independence from the UK, becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to win its freedom from a colonial power, after a pro-independence party, the Convention People’s Party (CPP), founded by Kwame Nkrumah, triumphed in parliamentary elections.

Ghana ratified a republican constitution in 1960 and Nkrumah became president, having previously served as prime minister. The increasingly authoritarian Nkrumah turned Ghana into a one-party state under the CPP in 1964 and declared himself president for life, before being overthrown by a military coup in 1966, when government was taken over by the military-dominated National Liberation Council.

A HISTORY OF COUPS: In 1969 a new constitution was ratified and a civilian government under Kofi Busia, whose Progress Party had dominated elections, took power. However, in 1972, amid serious economic problems, it too was overthrown by a coup, led this time by Colonel Ignatius Acheampong, who was in turn deposed in 1978 in a putsch by General Frederick Akuffo. In 1979 flight lieutenant Jerry Rawlings and other junior officers, ostensibly motivated by economic problems and corruption among senior military and political figures, mounted yet another coup and took power, executing both Acheampong and Akuffo in the process.

While Rawlings quickly handed over power to an elected government afterwards, in 1981, dissatisfied at the performance of this civilian administration, he mounted a second coup and became chairman of the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), which took control of the country.

Rawlings went on to found a new political party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), based around socialism and populism. In 1992, following the approval by referendum of a new constitution drawn up by a consultative assembly, the country moved back to democratic rule. As the NDC candidate, Rawlings was elected president and served two terms (the maximum allowed). He was succeeded in 2001 by John Kufuor of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), who defeated Rawlings’ deputy, John Atta-Mills. Kufuor won a second term in 2004 before being succeeded in 2009 by Atta-Mills.

POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS: The country has had four constitutions since independence, in 1960, 1969, 1979 and 1992, the last of which remains in force. The current constitution is a based on aspects of both an American-styled presidential system, under which the president is directly elected, and a British-type parliamentary system, based around a 230-member unicameral parliament, which is selected on the basis of a British-style first-past-the-post election every four years. However, between parliament and the presidency, the latter is the more powerful.

Executive power is vested in the president, who is the head of government as well as head of state, and also serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He appoints government ministers, a majority of whom must come from parliament, and has the right to veto parliamentary legislation unless it is passed by a vote of urgency. The president, who can serve a maximum of two four-year terms and must be elected by an absolute majority of voters ( requiring run-off elections in the event that no candidate wins more than 50% in the first round of voting), initiates legislation. Parliament can technically also do so but only if the legislation does not have any financial implications, which seriously constrains it.

The constitution mandates the existence of a 25-member council of elders known as the Council of State to advise the president; the council consists of 11 members nominated by the president and a member elected by each of Ghana’s 10 geographical regions, as well as former chief justice, a former chief of staff, a former inspector-general of the police and the incumbent president of the National House of Chiefs, which is made up of five traditional rulers from each of Ghana’s regions. The Supreme Court of Ghana serves as the final arbiter in the country’s judicial system; its members (of whom there must be at least nine) are appointed by the president in consultation with the Council of State and with the approval of parliament.

The country is administratively divided into 10 regions, which are made up of 138 districts. These have their own assemblies, which are known as metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies, as well as elected executive and administrative bodies. Local elections are held every four years – the next are due to take place in 2014 – with candidates required to run on a non-partisan basis, although in practice candidates are increasingly associated with one of the two main political parties.

PARTIES: Although Ghana’s electoral system is nominally multi-party, elections are dominated by two heavyweights: the NDC and the NPP. Both of these parties fall squarely in the middle of the spectrum, although there are some distinctions to be made in how they approach economic policy. The NPP is traditionally viewed as somewhat more pro-free market and private enterprise as opposed to the social democratic tendencies of the NDC. “The two parties differ in terms of ideology and campaign pledges but in terms of policy when they are in government, there has been no real difference between them so far, as they have very little room for manoeuvre,” John K Kwakye, the senior economist at the Institute for Economic Affairs of Ghana, told OBG.

Nevertheless, electoral politics is strongly contested. “Ghanaian politics are very partisan and the two main parties are very antagonistic,” David Ampofo, a television journalist and political commentator at Ghana’s Channel Two, told OBG. “Elections are like a football competition with voters strongly identifying with their team.” Patronage also plays an important role. “People invest in supporting parties with the hope of getting jobs when those parties subsequently come to power,” said Ampofo.

Ethnic and regional factors also influence voter choices. “Support for the parties is also largely not about policy but is mainly based on ethnicity,” said Kwakye. The NPP has close links to the Akan group, while the NDC has particularly strong ties to the Ebe ethnic community, whose origins are in the east of the country, according to Ampofo. The NDC’s main geographical stronghold is the Volta region, while the NPP has a bastion of support in Ashanti.

DEMOCRATIC ROLE MODEL: Ghana is rated as “free” by NGO Freedom House (of the categories not free, partly free and free), as is its press. The country is widely perceived as stable; for example, the World Economic Forum’s 2011-12 “Global Competitiveness Report” ranked “Coups and instability” last of 15 problematic factors for doing business in the country. “Policy instability” was ranked 11th out of the 15. While corruption is an issue, the country is a strong performer in regional terms. The 2011 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Ghana as the 69th-least-corrupt country in the world (out of 182), and second-least-corrupt in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), after Cape Verde.

These factors mark Ghana out as a major regional political success story. “Ghana is a flag-bearer for democracy in Africa. There have been five free and fair elections in the past 20 years and two peaceful transfers of power, which is enough in itself to attract substantial investor interest,” said Alasdair Hamilton, the head of UKTI Ghana. Indeed, many international companies have been looking at Ghana as a regional centre for their activities in West Africa, despite its not being the largest economy or oil producer in the region, due in large part to its stability. “Ghana needs to keep that headline,” said Hamilton.

The reasons commonly cited for Ghana’s status as a regional haven of stability and democracy include the fact that the country won its independence peacefully, as well as its diverse ethnic make-up; no ethnic group is sufficiently strong to threaten to monopolise power, and it is felt this obliges governments to reach out to all groups.

UNITY: The country also has a strong sense of national identity that supersedes other affiliations such as ethnicity and tribe, more so than in many other African countries, which some attribute to factors such as an educational system in which people from different backgrounds tend to mix. While religious sentiment is strong, tensions between various religious groups ( just under 70% of the population is Christian, divided between Pentecostals, Protestants Catholics and other dominations, while around 16% is Muslim and around 9% follow traditional religions) are low. Civil society is also well developed, putting pressure on government and allowing for peaceful outlets for frustrations and dissent. “Ghana has a very strong civil society base,” Kwakye told OBG.

One blemish on Ghana’s otherwise strong record of stability is the fact that some parts of the underdeveloped north of the country continue to see occasional low-level conflict over issues such as land, ethnic and tribal differences, and tensions between farmers and nomadic herders. Around 5000 people died in tribal violence in the region in 1994, while 30 people, including a prominent tribal chief, were killed in similar fighting in 2002. In May 2012 Atta-Mills called on chieftains in the north to resolve various disputes and put an end to such tensions, arguing that development and infrastructural improvements in the area would remain difficult to achieve while such issues persist.

ELECTIONS: Competition between the two parties is intense. The 2008 elections were extremely close, with NDC candidate Atta-Mills winning the presidency in a run-off vote (after none of the initial eight candidates won an absolute majority in the first round of voting) by a margin of just 40,000 votes or so. The NDC won 115 parliamentary seats in the election (half of the total available), ahead of the NPP on 108 (the remaining seven seats were divided between independents, the PPP and the CPP).

The next presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in December 2012. While previous presidents in the fourth republic have served two terms, the death of Atta-Mills, alongside factionalisation within the ruling NDC, make the results far from certain. Even before the passing of Atta-Mills, polls were showing a close fight.

FOREIGN RELATIONS: Ghana has long had an active diplomatic profile, dating back to the 1950s when Nkrumah trekked across the continent as part of a push to strengthen the Pan-African movement.

The country continues to have strong regional links and serve as crucial interlocutor on continental issues. Ghana is a member of ECOWAS, a group of 15 West African countries established with the goal of creating a Customs union and facilitating the free movement of goods and people in the region, along the same lines as the EU. As the second-largest economy in the bloc and one of its most populous members, Ghana plays a key role, although progress by the group towards economic integration has remained slow. As the first independent sub-Saharan African state, Ghana has also traditionally been an important member of the Non-Aligned Movement and continues to largely follow the organisation on general international matters.

Ghana also has strong bilateral ties, both politically and economically. Its major trading partners include the UK, the EU, the US, China and Nigeria. Relations with the UK benefit not only from historical ties but are bolstered by the presence of a several hundred thousand-strong Ghanaian diaspora in Britain, while high-level ties with the US have strengthened defence and diplomatic cooperation, most recently in drug enforcement. In addition, relations with other emerging markets are becoming increasingly important, as investors from Russia, India, South Africa and Singapore pour capital into the country. The most obvious example of this trend is China, as it steps up its search for energy and mineral supplies in Africa, in return for which it has offered Ghana major concessional loan facilities.

Ghana is Africa’s leading contributor to international peacekeeping forces and the sixth-largest contributor worldwide, with the military seen as professional and competent. Ghana’s motives for this are not purely altruistic, as the country is paid for peacekeeping missions, which generate revenue for its armed forces, but it does allow the country to serve as a crucial multilateral participant in some of the world’s most sensitive conflicts.

OUTLOOK: Given the narrow margin of victories in past voting exercises, a lack of consistently reliable polling data and death of Atta-Mills, the 2012 elections will certainly be closely contested. Against a backdrop of a recent history of electoral turmoil in some African countries and elsewhere in the emerging world, and signs of rising tensions ahead of the vote, there are understandably concerns that the risk of instability could rise in 2012, but as evidenced by the peaceful succession following the death of President Atta-Mills, such concerns seem overstated. Previous elections have also aroused such fears, which turned out to be unfounded, and the country now has five free elections and two democratic transfers of power under its belt.

The prospect of another successful democratic exercise will further consolidate Ghana’s reputation as a torch-bearer for democracy on the continent, bolstering its attractiveness to investors seeking a combination of high growth and political stability.