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Making local level elections partisan and matters arising[Article]

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Ghana’s 2016 general elections were characterized by many promises, particularly, by the then opposition, New Patriotic Party (NPP). One of the major promises is the idea to change and make the office of the Chief Executives of the Metropolitan, Municipal and Districts Assemblies (MMDAs) an elected one.

What this means is simple. That, the old method of appointing the Chief Executives of the MMDAs fortified under Article 243 (1) of Ghana’s Constitution should give way to a new method, that is the ‘election method’.

Though the NPP’s manifesto promise of electing MMDCEs fell short of expressly indicating whether the election will be on a partisan basis or not, it became amply clear subsequently, that, the election will be on a partisan basis.

Simply put, the election will not only seek to make the MMDCE position an elected one but also partisan. The legislative proposal for the partisan election of the MMDCEs elicited public commentaries from notable public intellectuals, leading civil society actors, including key government officials.

Many have heralded this move and full of praise for the government. The Institute for Democratic Governance (IDEG), the Institute for Local Government Studies (ILGS), the YES Coalition, etc. have all been for and on this advocacy for years now.

His Excellency, Nana Akufo-Addo emphatically mentioned in his 2018 State of the Nations Address (SONA) that the proposed election of the MMDCE will be partisan.

This is what the President said: “Mr. Speaker, yet another ambitious decentralization exercise is the expansion of full democracy to local government. A critical step, to this end, is the direct election of Metropolitan, Municipal and District Chief Executives on a partisan basis. It is a firm manifesto commitment of the New Patriotic Party”.

Again, in the 2019 SONA delivered by H.E. Nana Akufo-Addo, he re-echoed the partisan election of the MMDCEs.

This is what he had to say: “Mr. Speaker, we have also embarked on another aspect of our ambitious decentralization programme, that is the exercise to expand full democracy to local government. In addition to the creation of 38 Municipal and District Assemblies, and the elevation of 29 Districts to the status of Municipalities, the Bill for the amendment of article 55(3) of the Constitution has been gazetted, to pave way for the direct, popular election, on partisan basis, of Metropolitan, Municipal and District Chief Executives (MMDCEs). It is expected that a Referendum will be held on the Bill, alongside the Unit Assembly and District level elections in 2019”.

At least, what is obvious at this point is the consistency with which the NPP Government wants a partisan election of MMDCEs.

This is a stark variation, at least, from what was contained in the last NDC government’s White Paper on the Constitution Review Commissions (CRC) Report in respect of this matter. The NDC’s position was for a non-partisan election of MMDCEs.

At this point, it is quite clear that while the last NDC administration opted for non-partisan adult suffrage for the election of MMDCEs, the current NPP government is for a partisan election of MMDCEs. Therefore, extracting the distinction between the positions of the NDC and the NPP is important in fully appreciating the vexed issue of whether there is any link between Article 243 (1) and 55 (3).

Now if you go by the last NDC government’s position on this matter – the non-partisan election of MMDCEs, no link will arise between 55 (3) and 243 (1).

This is because the last NDC government sought not to make it partisan; hence, what could be done is simply to amend 243 (1) from the current appointment system to a non-partisan elected office.

When you take it from the approach of the NPP – partisan election of MMDCEs – you would definitely see and understand the link between 55 (3) and 243 (1). This is because, the NPP government wants a partisan election – particularly of MMDCEs – at the local level.

However, 55 (3) says no party can sponsor a candidate for elections at the district assembly level. This means that the NPP government cannot realize their manifesto promise of electing MMDCEs on party basis except 55 (3) gives them the way via amendment of the same through a referendum.

Another interesting twist is that the NDC Minority Caucus in Parliament seem to support the partisan election of MMDCEs. This is evident in the statements made by the leaders of the Minority Caucus on the floor of the House.

The Minority Chief Whip, Hon. Alhaji Mohammed-Mubarak Muntanka, had this to say during the deliberations on the Bill seeking to give effect to the amendment of 243 (1): “Mr. Speaker, I would start by saying that in principle, we all have agreed that the election of MMDCEs on partisan bases is unquestionable.”

Similarly, the Minority Leader, Hon. Haruna Iddrisu, in his contribution to the debate on the floor of the House on the matter, averred: “Mr. Speaker, the pretense must end. All of us here know that clandestinely, political parties support District Assembly elections in Ghana. It is provided in the Constitutional Review Report and I can read portions of it. So Mr. Speaker, two principles; amend the Constitution, allow for popular election of DCEs, but do it on the principle of partisanship. We would support that. Without that, it may be difficult to support it.”

This raises the question of how possible it is to support the call for a partisan election of, say, MMDCEs, without the prior amendment of Article 55 (3) of the Constitution? At this point, it is quite obvious, that, a YES VOTE in the referendum will help secure the election of the MMDCEs on a partisan basis.

On a different but related matter, Ghana’s Electoral Commission has fixed 17th December 2019 for a national referendum hoping to amend the entrenched provision – Article 55 (3) of the Constitution.

Article 55 (3) of the constitution fundamentally bars any form of partisan elections at the District Assembly and Unit Committee levels of Ghana’s local government system.

However, and unfortunately, there is a misconception on the 17th December 2019 Referendum. Indeed, the political and national discourse on the referendum reveals a particular school of thought: that, the referendum is to decide whether to publicly – and, on a partisan basis – elect the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Chief Executives (MMDCES).

For the avoidance of doubt, and, again, the 17th December 2019 referendum is, at least on the surface, not specifically about the election of MMDCEs; but specifically, to amend the entrenched provision – Article 55 (3) – in the Constitution to enable political parties to sponsor candidates for District Assembly and Unit Committee elections.

Effectively, the referendum only seeks to change the form of election for Assembly and Unit Committee members from a non-partisan to a partisan election.

What many have sought to find out is what informed this move to amend Article 55 (3). To date, there appears not to have been any cogent reasoning to the Ghanaian voters, taxpayers, and citizens for the proposed amendment.

However, what may not be quite clear to many is that, as mentioned earlier, when one approaches this discourse from what the NPP government intends doing, thus, the election of MMDCEs on partisan basis, then, it makes political and strategic sense to tie the Article 55 (3) referendum to the election of MMDCEs since it is only Article 55 (3) that possesses the key to the NPP Government’s promise land – the election of MMDCEs on partisan basis.

From the penultimate paragraph, a “YES” vote for the partisan elections of the members of the District Assemblies and Unit Committee shall include and seal the partisan election of MMDCEs as promised by the NPP government.

Suffice to say, and for reasons I have mentioned below, I am against the election of MMDCEs. At worst, I shall support a non-partisan popular election of MMDCEs.

However, I hesitate to conclude that voting on a partisan basis for the Assembly Members of the District Assemblies and the Unit Committees (excluding the MMDCEs) is necessarily a bad move save for the springboard it provides for the future partisan election of MMDCEs.

The following are a few reasons for my objection to a partisan election of MMDCEs:

Inclusivity by Exclusion: One of the cardinal reasons for the proposed election of MMDCEs is that it fosters and deepens local participation at the district level – inclusivity. Some have even argued that the current appointment process has been a contributory factor to the low voter turn-outs in the various local government elections in Ghana.

This argument, on the surface, sounds convincing; for after all, what is democracy without the full and active participation of the citizenry?

The potential danger, however, is the flat denial of women’s participation in the local government decision-making hierarchy owing to the nature of Ghana’s multiparty elections. Ghana’s multiparty elections have disadvantaged women in many ways.

An illustrative example is the percentage of women in Ghana’s parliament today. There are only 36 women out of the 275 MPs in Ghana representing a disappointing 12.75% of the membership. The factors and reasons for such a low female representation have been widely documented.

From the lack of affirmative action policies, programmes and gender-informed structural reforms, to the lack of or inadequate campaign financing, through the corridors of socio-cultural and religious stereotypes, misconception about woman leadership and political insults, to the competition for time between family work and party politics, etc., the Ghanaian woman has already been unfairly disadvantaged in partisan elections.

Indeed, research suggests that even the current MMDCE appointment process – which offers a progressive and sustainable mechanism for ensuring gender justice – is fraught with challenges for women’s active and meaningful participation in politics.

Unfortunately, and given our context, an elective process, comparatively, would worsen the situation, entrench gender injustice and fight back the gains accrued in the gender justice agenda. And, this is so particularly, when the government of Ghana is yet to show any serious commitment to the passage of the affirmative action bill into law.

Therefore, though it is presumptively democratically ideal to switch from the current appointment to an elective mechanism, the partisan election of MMDCEs may flatly deny and derail the efforts at women’s participation in decision-making and gender justice notwithstanding that as at 2010 women constituted 51.2% of Ghana’s population.

It is an extreme form of injustice to suggest to women that they can fully participate in the election of the MMDCEs on a partisan basis but, as Ghana’s competitive partisan electoral terrain has been, they can contest for the MMDCE positions but with limited or no chance at all of becoming MMDCEs.

The increasing cost of politics: There is no iota of doubt that when the current appointment process is converted to a partisan elective process, the entire local government political landscape shall significantly change. What would be the form of this new change?

Political parties would have to properly organize to present “winnable” candidates for the local elections. Clearly, this will heighten the already unbearable cost of politics. The average financial cost for successfully winning a party parliamentary primary at the constituency level has been pegged around GH₵389,803 (approx. US$85,000).

Indeed, the data further suggest that between 2012 and 2016 – just within a political term period alone – the cost of politics has increased by 59%. This is a worrying trend for Ghana’s democracy. Ghana’s democratic and political space is being gradually hijacked by the owners of the war chest.

The cost of politics has a direct correlation to political corruption and the conflict of interest problems Ghana is bedeviled with. Owing to the expensive nature of running political campaigns in Ghana, contenders tend to go for loans and “support with conditionalities” to effectively prosecute their campaigns.

Upon winning (or, even losing) one is under, sometimes, the uncomfortable duty to engage in all sorts of acts – conflict of interest situations, corruption, etc., – to repay the loans (and, in some cases, kowtow to the dictates of the owners of the war chest that supported the campaign).

It is equally the case that the appointment process for MMDCEs is gradually becoming expensive; particularly, at the stage where the MMDCEs ought to be endorsed by the Assemblies through an election by the Assembly Members.

However, comparatively, the cost of popular partisan elections has been empirically proven to be relatively high than the cost involved in the appointment process.

The cost to society is the embezzlement of funds that would have otherwise gone into the provision of infrastructure for the people, building of good roads and transport systems, construction of hospitals and modern schools, repairs and fixing of new street lights on our roads, the resourcing and full decentralization of the scholarship secretariat to respond to the educational financial needs of the sons and daughters of ordinary Ghanaians, etc.

The people who are being called upon today to elect MMDCEs on the partisan basis are the same people going to lose at the end. A call to sign one’s death warrant?

Again, I have realized many have been cocooned into the school of thought that election (on a partisan basis or not) helps make the MMDCE accountable to the people. There is a fundamental problem with such a school of thought given the architecture of our local government system. I shall explain this in the way forward.

Destabilization of the Development Agenda: This is the situation the election (partisan or otherwise) of the MMDCEs and that of the Assembly Members would likely manifest. First, we must understand that the electoral areas are always located in the jurisdiction of the District Assembly. In other words, each district is made up of a number of electoral areas. Some electoral areas may have the same or similar development challenges while others may not.

Now, let’s take the Adentan Municipal Assembly (AdMA) as a case study. AdMA has twelve (12) electoral areas. Therefore, whereas the Assembly Member for, say, Adjiringanor Electoral area campaigned and won on the peculiar development challenges and prospects of her electoral area, the MMDCE campaigned in all the seven (7) electoral areas – including Adjiringanor Electoral Area – and won.

The Assembly Member for the Adjiringanor Electoral Area builds a social pact with the electorates in the electoral area whereas the MMDCE does same with all the electorates in all the electoral areas in the jurisdiction of the District Assembly; possibly on issues that may vary from what each of the Assembly Members have with the electorates.

What does this mean for resource allocations, development financing and lobbying; and the fulfilment of the social pact with the electorates?

Whether fully fiscally decentralized or not, the competition for resources for development work and particularly the fulfilment of the social pact by the MMDCE on one side, and, the Assembly Members on the other side, would trigger tension and destroy the harmony and cohesion needed for local development.

This would be much deepened where the MMDCE promised and campaign on different issues from that of the Assembly Members in the same electoral areas. In the face of limited resources for development work at the District level, the competition for resources for the fulfilment of manifesto promises may generate an unhealthy working relationship that could sabotage the local government system. Eventually, it’s the electorates that lose at the end.

Way Forward:

The claim that the people have been calling for the popular election of MMDCEs primarily because the MMDCEs have not been accountable to the people needs further interrogation. First, granted the call by the people is genuine, why are the same people not calling for the Assembly Members who they already elect to be more accountable? Why would they want the MMDCE (and, not the Assembly Members) that they do not elect to be accountable to them? Is it because the MMDCE is appointed by the President?

Or, is it because the Assembly Members are not appointed on a partisan basis? Or, perhaps, because the people think the MMDCE directs the agenda of development at the local government level? Or, maybe, because the MMDCE is visible resource-wise; has good accommodation, cruises in 4-wheel drive with personal security, etc.? Let’s dig deeper!

Ghana’s District Assembly system makes room for two basic functions: the (1) deliberative / legislative function, and, (2) executive and administrative function. The MMDCE does not have the power to determine the direction of deliberations when the Assembly is performing its deliberative/legislative function.

In fact, the deliberative/legislative process is chaired by the Presiding Member who is also an Assembly Member. The MMDCE is just a member of the Assembly with no voting right.

Again, the MMDCE, though the chair of the Executive Committee of the Assembly, does not have the power to solely determine the direction of executive decisions in respect of the implementation of resolutions agreed on by the Assembly.

In fact, the Executive Committee is made up of the MMDCE and other Assembly Members who are chairpersons of some specific sub-committees including co-opted members. As is getting clearer now, the role and influence of the MMDCE ideally is not supposed to be over-bearing and that powerful.

So why do they – MMDCEs – appear to be much stronger and influential to the extent that the electorates think they need to exact accountability from them whereas the elected Assembly Members rather go free?

To answer this, a confluence of factors must be assessed. First, the lack of or little visibility – politically and resource-wise – of the Assembly Member in the electoral area. One of the effects of being adequately resourced is independence.

When Assembly members are statutorily put on good salaries for their work, given offices in the electoral area to facilitate their work, resourced where necessary to aid the work they do, one of the results will be the reduction of their dependence on the MMDCE for small “favours” by way of contracts and allowances for their sustenance.

Also, when the electorates get to fully understand that the Assembly members are paid and fully resourced from their tax contributions, the tendency to be critical of the work of Assembly members and to exact accountability from them will be relatively high. The demand for accountability by the electorates/people will be directed towards where it is supposed to ideally be.

It is equally the case, that, the election of the MMDCEs will not in any way guarantee the election of the most competent and capable. It is true that, to some extent, neither has the current appointment process of MMDCEs produced the most competent and capable.

This is where, instead of throwing the position of the MMDCE into the deep dead seas of a partisan election, attention is rather dedicated to strengthening and improving the appointment process. One of the things that could be done is the enactment of a Constitutional Instrument (CI) or even a Legislative Instrument (LI) pursuant to the Local Government Act, to (re)define the criteria for the appointment of MMDCEs.

In my view, the said law, be it a CI or LI, should, among others, contain these fundamental four provisions: first, a legal obligation on the part of the appointing authority to ensure gender parity – 50% women, 50% men – in the appointment process; second, the MMDCE appointee must have, at least 5 – 7 years development work or professional background; third, the MMDCE appointee should hail from or have lived in the district for 5 years immediately preceding the appointment date; and, (4) the MMDCE so appointed must be granted security of tenure as in the case of the Special Prosecutor.

In essence, I am for a No VOTE in respect of the election (partisan or otherwise) of MMDCEs. However, if the people really want the popular election of MMDCEs, I will suggest we look the way of a non-partisan election of MMDCEs and be guided by the position of the White Paper issued by the last Mills/JM government on the Constitution Review Commission (CRC) Report in respect of the elections of MMDCEs.

 

Columnist: Michael Abbey

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