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Ghana votes in rare example of African democracy

Sunday, December 07, 2008

ACCRA, Ghana —  Election officials began counting ballots late Sunday in one of Africa's rare democracies, where voters are painfully aware of the example they are setting on a continent better known for coups, rigged elections and one-man rule.

In courtyards throughout the capital, election officials put police tape around the plywood tables where they began sorting ballots. Hundreds of onlookers formed walls around the counting tables, standing on chairs to get a view and whooping as the stack of their candidate of choice grew taller.

The count capped a long day in this humid capital. The election began the night before, as hundreds of voters slept on the pavement outside their polling stations in an effort to be first. Voters spoke of carrying the burden of the continent's numerous failures as they waited to vote.

"We will never disgrace our country. We know that the whole world is watching us," said Beatrice Mantey, a retired school teacher who spent the night on the concrete outside her polling station.

An independent coalition of election observers stationed at 1,000 polling stations nationwide reported about a dozen disturbances by the end of voting. The most serious involved a shooting targeting the convoy of a parliamentary candidate in a town west of the capital, said John Larvie, coordinator of the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers. The others involved scuffles between voters, and the late arrival of election materials.

International observers, including delegates with the Commonwealth Observer Group, noted long lines as well as problems with voters who had recently transferred to a new location but whose names could not be found on the voter roll.

By evening, the main opposition party, which election watchers say is likely to lose by a slim margin, issued a statement pointing out the same irregularities. Still, Elvis Ankrah, the party's deputy general secretary, urged supporters to remain calm and "not do anything that would mar this beautiful exercise."

A lot is riding on Ghana's election, not just for the nation of 23 million but also for Africa as a whole. Like its neighbors, Ghana has a history of coups and one-party rule, but since the 1990s when coup leader Jerry Rawlings agreed to hold elections, it has been on a fast track to democracy. It has held four elections since 1992, first bringing Rawlings to power, then current President John Kufuor, who is stepping down after two terms in office.

When he does, it will mark the country's second successive transfer of power from one democratically elected leader to another, a litmus test of a mature democracy that only a handful of African nations have passed.

"Ghana is an example. It's the counterpoint to the Kenyas and the Zimbabwes," said John Stremlau, a former U.S. State Department official who is leading a delegation of international observers for the Carter Center.

Although eight candidates are vying to replace Kufuor, the contest is really a race between Kufuor's chosen successor, Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party, or NPP, and John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress, or NDC. The NDC is Rawlings' party and Atta Mills is the ex-coup leader's former vice president.

The choice is a referendum on two eight-year periods _ 1992 to 2000 when Rawlings' NDC was in power and 2000 to 2008 when Kufuor's NPP was at the helm.

The most recent eight years has seen a stunning twenty-fold increase in foreign investment. The country is poised to go from a major exporter of cocoa beans to a manufacturer of chocolate syrup, a transition to a value-added economy that could catapult it ahead of most other African countries.

The discovery of oil off the country's coast last year is expected to start pumping between $2 and $3 billion annually into the state purse within the next two years.

For these reasons, the ruling party is campaigning on a platform of continuity, covering the country in posters that declare "We are moving forward." Their thousands of supporters greet each other with a hand gesture symbolizing progress _ they place their palms out in front and move them in a back-and-forth motion indicating forward momentum.

"Foreign investors believe we have a democracy," says 45-year-old Martin Atuah, a security guard, who cast his vote for the ruling party. "Before I didn't even have a bank account. Now banks are chasing me to give me loans," he said, explaining he was able to use his salary slip to secure a $5,000 loan, allowing him to build a small house.

The loan is predicated on him having a salary _ which marks one of the fault lines in a country where over one in 10 adults are unemployed and where even those that have jobs earn on average $3.80 a day.

In one slum built on the banks of a garbage-choked river, a white-haired man says he hasn't had a job in years. The only neighborhood Frederick Asamoah can afford to live in is the one beside the stinking river, which is so clogged with garbage that locals have placed planks of wood across the junk so they can cross to the other side.

"Moving forward?" he asks. "Right now we're moving backward."

Leaders and supporters of the opposition NDC party roll their fists over each other, like the turning of two wheels, signaling the need for change for people like Asamoah. They argue the growth has failed to trickle down to the poor. They point to Malaysia and South Korea, countries that declared independence the same year as Ghana _ 1957 _ but whose citizens earn 10 and 17 times more than their African counterparts.

Still, Ghanaians are acutely aware of their status as a role model for the region. Churches throughout the country have been fasting for a successful hand-over. The Coalition of Domestic Election Observers has put in place an independent verification system, posting observers at 1,000 polling stations. At each one, they will count the votes at the same time as government monitors, sending their tallies by text message to a mainframe computer, allowing a real time check of government results.

"I think Ghanaians are watching themselves," says Miranda Greenstreet, the coalition's co-chair. "They have realized that constant coups limit development."

___

Associated Press Writer Francis Kokutse contributed to this report from Accra, Ghana.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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