As an American who visits Ghana frequently, and takes an active interest in the political culture of both countries, I watched last night's first Ghanaian Presidential Debate with great curiosity and anticipation.
Much like the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) in the United States organizes fora at which the candidates can square off; the IEA (Institute for Economic Affairs) performs the same function in Ghana. Last night's debate was the first one featuring the Presidential candidates, while in a week's time the Vice Presidential nominees will square off, and finally a last battle between the Presidential contenders will take place on November 20.
What differs is the inclusion of lesser candidates. In the United States, a national Presidential debate has not included a 3rd party candidate since Ross Perot in 1992. In Ghana, however, any party that holds seats in parliament can participate on equal footing with the 2 largest parties, the incumbent National Democratic Congress (NDC) and their rivals, the New Patriotic Party (NPP).
Ghana's smaller parties are not likely to exceed 3% of the vote nationally, which makes the NDC/NPP rivalry almost exactly analogous to the Democrat /Republican rivalry in the USA.
The NDC is a center-left party, whose proposals focus on helping the poor through direct government assistance, while the NPP is a center-right party more associated with entrepreneurship and market growth.
This year, both the Democrats and the NDC have incumbents in power seeking a second term (Barack Obama and John Mahama, who inherited power as VP after the incumbent John Atta Mills passed away over the summer), while the
Republicans and the NPP have energetic challengers seeking to bring their parties back to power by attacking the record of the incumbents and trying to show a better vision for improving conditions in economically tough times (Mitt Romney and Nana Akufo-Addo).
In that context, last night's debate, with the exception of the inclusion of 2 minor Ghanaian candidates, was almost a replay of the first Presidential debate in the USA, in which the challenger Romney boxed Obama to a bloody pulp by hammering the incumbent on a poor record of job growth, debt expansion, and health care reform. Obama's responses seemed contrived and dispassionate, and even the staunchest Obama fans lacked the heart to claim victory for their candidate in the aftermath, who was beaten fair and square.
And the American public noticed. As a result of his dominating performance, Romney quickly closed a 5 point national gap in polling and came to within 2 points, making the race nearly neck-and-neck.
While polling is far less frequently conducted and far more difficult to trust in Ghana, a similar bounce in the polls is quite likely for Akufo-Addo given the way he utterly dominated the discussion last night. Like his
American counterpart, he boxed the incumbent on issue after issue, bombarding him with compelling data points on every topic - from unemployment, to health care, to education - his signature issue.
Sitting in the auditorium during the debate, the audience was asked repeatedly to refrain from applauding or making noise of any kind until the end. But the NPP supporters simply could not contain their enthusiasm as they watched their standard-bearer rise to the occasion and deliver blow after blow with the determination of Rocky Balboa. By the end of the 4 hours (the IEA really must streamline the process) Mahama looked dejected and exhausted, while Akufo-Addo was all smiles and seemed ready to go another 12 rounds. No doubt that NPP spirits are soaring for now.
But a debate is just one event. If Akufo-Addo, who held a slight lead in the polls going into Tuesday's face-off, can maintain the momentum he gained and continue to show a clear distinction between the NDC and NPP manifestos, contrasting what he describes as NDC failures and broken promises with NPP competence, he'll pull ahead and could even score a "one touch" victory, by earning over 50% on December 7 and thereby avoiding a run-off with Mahama.
Also interesting to note is the fact that Mahama is the first incumbent ever to agree to take part in the IEA debate process. For his willingness to face the people and his opponent, he deserves credit. But whispers among the Ghanaian political class suggest that NDC strategists fear the candidate's numbers slipping in key strongholds nationwide, and that he needed to appear on the national stage to reassure those pockets of votes. Since he was not elected himself, he has the rather large shoes of the late President Mills to fill, and - judging by last night's performance - he is not yet up to the challenge.
Ghanaians will be closely watching the Vice Presidential debate next week, and will wake up the following morning to learn who has won the American Presidency. Whether or not that will foretell Ghana's future, however, remains to be seen.
John Hamilton/Atlanta, Georgia/USA