Ghana Looks to Democratize its Local Government

By H. Kwasi Prempeh, 22 April
(photo credit: Nii Martey M. Botchway)
(photo credit: Nii Martey M. Botchway)

The Government of Ghana has initiated steps to amend the country's constitution to democratize the mode of selection of the chief executives of local government authorities as well as allow political parties to sponsor candidates in local government elections. Two separate bills to this effect have been laid before the country's Parliament.

A unitary republic, Ghana is currently divided administratively into sixteen regions, which are, in turn, further divided into districts or local government units (currently numbering 254) designated, depending on size, as metropolitan, municipal, or district assemblies. While the regions serve a purely “coordinating” function at the sub-national level, Ghana's districts (including metropolitan and municipal areas) are the primary local government units that are charged with planning and implementing plans and policies for the development of designated local communities.

The structure of government at the district level comprises a district (metropolitan or municipal) assembly, which is the legislative arm of the local government unit, and a district (metropolitan or municipal) chief executive, who is “the chief representative of the central government in the district” and is “responsible for the day-to-day performance of the executive and administrative functions of the district.”  Voters at the metropolitan, municipal, or district level, vote once every four years to elect members to seventy-percent of the seats in their respective local assembly, with the remaining thirty percent of the membership of the assembly appointed by the President of the Republic. Political parties, which may and do contest freely in the country's national-level presidential and parliamentary elections, are currently prohibited by the constitution from sponsoring or endorsing candidates in local government elections. The President also appoints each metropolitan, municipal, and district chief executive (MMDCE), with the concurrence of a two-thirds vote of members of the local assembly. An MMDCE may be removed from office by the President or by a no-confidence vote of two-thirds of the assembly.

In short, as currently designed, the legislative half of Ghana's local government system is part (majority)-elective (but on a strictly non-party basis) and part (minority)-appointive, while the executive half is entirely appointive, the President holding the appointing power in each instance.

The first of the two constitutional amendment bills currently before Parliament seeks an amendment to article 243, clause (1) of the constitution of Ghana to allow, for the first time in the country's history, popular local election of MMDCEs--or mayors, as they are frequently called.  The second bill proposes to amend article 55, clause (3), of the constitution to open all local government elections to participation by political parties and party-sponsored candidates.

The proposed constitutional amendments enjoy broad support within Ghanaian civil society and the general public.

Passage of the first bill requires the approval of a super-majority (two-thirds) of all members of Parliament, as the proposed amendment affects one of the “non-entrenched” provisions of the constitution. The second bill, however, implicates an “entrenched” provision of the constitution. Therefore, under Ghana's constitutional amendment rules, it can become law only upon receiving the approval of seventy-five percent of the votes cast at a national referendum that must register a minimum turnout of forty percent of registered voters.

Sponsorship of the two bills by the Government fulfills a manifesto promise of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) in the 2016 general elections.  The proposed constitutional amendments also enjoy broad support within Ghanaian civil society and the general public. An Afrobarometer survey conducted in the fall of 2017 found that roughly seven out of ten voting-age Ghanaians (69%) favor direct, popular election of MMDCEs by local communities, with 55% of respondents agreeing “very strongly” with this proposition. Previous Afrobarometer surveys show similarly strong public support (60% in 2008 and 71% in 2012) for the idea of elected MMDCEs.

Supporters of the proposed amendments believe that, replacing the current (presidential appointment) mode of selection of MMDCEs with direct election by local communities, will reinvigorate Ghana's stalled decentralization agenda and advance local democracy and development. MMDCEs who are accountable “downward” to local voters, rather than “upward” to the President, are seen as more likely to prioritize and pursue local concerns and development. Many are of the belief that, the election of MMDCEs is the reform that is needed in order to unlock and push the long overdue transformation of the historically unbalanced relationship between Ghana's central government and local communities, including, notably, in the center-to-local fiscal relationship. Citizen participation in local government and community affairs generally, including voter turnout in local elections, is also expected to improve substantially when local voters feel empowered as a result of getting to choose both their own local councillors and their chief executives.

Despite indications of broad public support, successful passage of either of the proposed constitutional amendments is far from assured.

Democracy advocates also argue that democratizing the election of local mayors would deepen the social roots of Ghanaian democracy and help reverse the “top-down” centralism and marginalisation of local (especially rural) communities that has long characterized politics and government in Ghana. Lastly, among civil society advocates who have long decried Ghana's “winner-take-all” politics, multiparty competition to elect MMDCEs and local assemblies is seen as an important antidote to the winner-take-all problem. Electing MMDCEs along party lines means that a party that loses the national elections in Ghana's historically two-party system but which retains overwhelming support in particular geographic areas, as typically happens, can expect to exercise local executive authority at least in their stronghold districts.

Despite indications of broad public support, successful passage of either of the proposed constitutional amendments is far from assured. While the NPP Government is the official sponsor of the proposals, the general-secretary of the party has stated publicly that significant numbers of the party rank-and-file oppose the idea of electing MMDCEs. It is also uncertain how much support the proposals enjoy from the leadership or membership of the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC). Although officially in favor of the “principle” of electing MMDCEs, it is not clear that the NDC supports direct or open popular election. Presented with a similar opportunity to amend the constitution, the last NDC Government (2009-2016) backed the idea of electing MMDCEs but opted for a method that would have restricted the election to candidates nominated by the President. In fact, the NDC contested the 2016 general elections with this “closed” or “controlled” election approach written into its party manifesto.  Under the NDC plan, every elected MMDCE would, in effect, be a nominee of the President; there would be no opportunity for opposition parties to field candidates in the election. Many NPP partisans, in fact, favor this approach.

One other constituency whose support for the idea of elective MMDCEs appears soft, at best, are the country's “traditional rulers” or chiefs. Although without regular formal authority in local or national government, Ghana's chiefs have remained socially and politically influential within their territorial domains, commanding substantial deference from a generally conservative and custom-observing populace. Under the existing constitutional arrangement, the President, in appointing the thirty-percent appointed members of a local assembly, must consult with local traditional authorities. In practice, politically influential chiefs also get consulted in the nomination (or removal) of MMDCEs. Once MMDCEs are popularly elected, however, chiefs stand to lose the influence they currently wield in the appointment process.  Moreover, an MMDCE who sources political power directly from the people might rival the chief's own power, which, though based in custom and tradition, ultimately springs from the same popular source as the MMDCE's.

Opponents of the election of MMDCEs also argue that it would give rise to unnecessary conflict between local and centre. While local election might create the illusion of power in the hands of MMDCEs, real power, including control over fiscal and bureaucratic resources and the management of locally-based natural resources, will continue to reside with the President and national political elites in Ghana's centralized unitary state system. Without further reform of the center-local relationship, electing MMDCEs, rather than empower local communities, might generate feelings of frustration and powerlessness, with the center continuing to dictate policy and monopolize resources. There is also concern, given Ghana's highly adversarial binary politics, that elected MMDCEs and their communities might suffer political discrimination and marginalisation from a national government of the rival party. Conversely, opposition-controlled local governments might sabotage or frustrate local implementation of national policies and plans.

This latter view finds particularly strong support among those who oppose the proposed amendments on “security” or “national cohesion” grounds. The concern here, similar to the arguments against semi-autonomous regional assemblies during the early post-independence period, is that metropolitan, municipal or district assemblies and MMDCEs that are under the control of a national opposition party would undermine national integration and cohesion and complicate the central government's management of national security. It is believed that the strong influence of this strand of opinion in the NDC explains the party's longstanding uneasiness about the idea of direct popular election of MMDCEs and its preference for presidential nomination (and, for that matter, ruling party control) of all candidates for MMDCE. This position has found support recently among NPP partisans who oppose the proposed amendments.

Partisan opposition to the election of MMDCEs is also partly self-serving. MMDCE appointments have become a common way to motivate and reward local party leaders and their loyal supporters. The current arrangement where the president appoints all MMDCEs thus favours local partisans of a ruling party, as it practically excludes the opposition from a share of the patronage, even in districts where the opposition is otherwise electorally stronger than the party of the President.

Securing strong bipartisan support for the non-entrenched amendment bill might require some horse-trading.

The high supermajorities required to amend both non-entrenched and entrenched clauses of the Ghana constitution mean that the two bills risk failure unless they can each garner strong bipartisan support. In Ghana's 275-member Parliament, the NPP currently controls 169 seats, with the remainder (106) in the control of the NDC. If voting in Parliament on the bill to amend article 243 (1) to allow popular election of MMDCEs follows strict party lines, the proposed amendment will fall short of the 184 votes needed for passage. It is thus imperative that, in addition to marshalling all 169 NPP votes, the Government secure the support of a minimum of 15 NDC members of parliament for passage of the bill.

Given the highly adversarial, often acrimonious, nature of the rivalry between Ghana's two parliamentary parties, securing strong bipartisan support for the non-entrenched amendment bill might require some horse-trading. This is especially the case in this instance, where successful passage of the bill is likely to be celebrated by the NPP in partisan terms as a manifesto or campaign pledge fulfilled. Since passage of the NPP-sponsored proposal would mean the rejection of the “closed election” approach previously favored by the NDC, the opposition party might demand some concessions in exchange for supporting the bill.

The second bill, which has been scheduled for a national referendum in November this year (to coincide with nationwide local assembly elections), faces significantly greater odds.  In the same 2017 Afrobarometer survey that showed roughly 70% of Ghanaians in support of electing MMDCEs, 51% of respondents indicated a preference for local elections without the participation of political parties. Considering that passage of the proposed amendment to article 55 (3) requires a minimum 75% voter approval, on top of a minimum 40% voter turnout, the Afrobarometer finding puts in perspective the enormity of the hurdle the second bill must overcome.  Without strong and enthusiastic support and voter mobilization by all political parties, together with civil society supporters of the bill, the proposal to allow political participation and sponsorship in local government elections indeed faces dim prospects.

As the idea of electing MMDCEs enjoys far greater public support than the companion idea of holding local government elections along party lines, it is not an unlikely scenario for the first bill to pass but not the second. Whatever the eventual outcome, any new change to the existing constitutional arrangements is not expected to come into effect until the next local government elections after 2020.

H. Kwasi Prempeh is the executive director of Ghana Center for Democratic Development, a civil society think tank that has been promoting and supporting democracy, good governance, and inclusive growth and development since 1998. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.

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