A new study by the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) has revealed that a majority of Ghanaians would prefer electing their Metropolitan, Municipal and District Chief Executives (MMDCEs) by popular vote, but experts warn that the system could lead to political violence across the country.
The postponed District and Municipal elections have now finally taken place. One issue was mercifully not on the ballot box, though: Should District and Municipal Chief Executives be elected by popular vote along party lines or shall we maintain the current system of being appointed by the president?
There is now a groundswell of popular opinion in support of scrapping the existing system and replacing it with elected MMDCEs, on the grounds that it does not sit well with democratic principles.
Presidential appointed MMDCEs, they argue, would be more inclined to serve the interests of the appointing authority instead of those of the constituents. Instead, MMDCE’s should be elected by popular vote just like members of parliament are, in order to ensure accountability.
Survey on effectiveness of district assemblies
The debate was given a helpful timely boost in August with the publication of a survey, “Assessing the Effectiveness of District Assemblies in Ghana’s Democracy,’’ by the NCCE, in early August. The study’s objective is to identify the causes of the ineffectiveness bedevilling the District Assemblies’ operations in order to find solutions. There is widespread public perception that partisanship is a cog in the wheel of operations of the district assemblies.
The report was launched to a heavily packed audience on August 19, 2015 at the Kofi Annan ICT Centre on August 19. The issue of whether MMDCEs should be elected by popular vote or continue to be appointed by presidential powers became an engagingly lively discussion at the launching ceremony.
Answers in the Constituion
But should it matter if there is partisanship in the district assemblies? The answer to that question takes us to provisions enshrined in the 1992 Fourth Republican Constitution.
That Constitution provided for a decentralised local government administration structure in order to encourage grassroots participation in decision-making. But the constitution also handed Ghanaians a weird local government system.
For starters, the President appoints 30 per cent of the members of all the 276 metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies, plus MMDCEs who hold executive power in the districts. The President is a party man and invariably selects those to be appointed from the ruling party, yet the Constitution explicitly forbids party politics in local government administration.
So in the end we have a topsy-turvy local government system, captured in the colourful words of Professor Kwamena Ahwoi: “A partisan central government system superimposed on a non-partisan local system, and that partisan central government is to implement its programmes through the non-partisan local government system.’’ How do we square the circle?
If party politics is introduced in local government elections, the fear is that given the damaging political polarisation already in the country, districts which vote against the ruling party would be considered hostile districts and could be discriminated against in terms of resource allocation.
This forms the backdrop to the 1992 Constitution when the drafters insisted on a non-partisan local government system.
However, if the current local government administration was squeaky clean of partisan politics it would present water tight case for a system of elected MMDCEs. But the present system is a far cry from the ideal.
“Any political party that comes into power manipulates the decentralised institutions to its advantage,’’ cried Kyei Baffour, former President of the National Association of Local Authorities of Ghana (NALAG) and a veteran local councillor since 1988.
“It is the party at the constituency level that handles applications for appointments, short lists the candidates, interviews them and submits the candidates to the President, because the president cannot go round 276 constituencies to appoint individuals,’’ said Baffour.
So, political party involvement in local governments is constantly lurking in the background contrary to constitutional prohibition.
It is perhaps because of the widespread perception that local government administration is tainted by partisan politics that majority of Ghanaians have voted with all their limbs to want to opt for election of MMDCEs, as the NCCE study shows.
According to the survey, nearly 69 per cent (68.6) of the respondents say the district assemblies are partisan in their operations. So, the argument goes, they could as well lift the veil of pretentions and open the floodgates to party politics.
The NCCE study indicates that nearly 70 per cent (69.4) of the respondents would prefer to have a system of elected rather than appointed MMDCEs as opposed to 30.6 per cent who would like to maintain the practice of appointing them.
But a former minister of local government, Professor Kwamina Ahwoi, cautions that it would be accelerating into a fog if party politics is introduced in the local level.
“At the national level, we are able to debate away polarisation but if we take partisanship to the local level, it will not be polarisation, it will be physical violence which would be very, very difficult to contain,’’ Professor Ahwoi, warned.
“Right now it is said there is partisanship at the local level; it is true, but because we are aware that it is illegal, we are very concerned how we do it,’’ says Ahwoi.
In his view, an open fight between two assembly members would be less likely to take on political overtones but would turn nasty if members were elected on party lines.
When Galileo was brought before the Inquisitors and forced to denounce his then “heretical” theory of the earth moving around the sun and not the other way round as was the belief at that time, he recanted but as he was rising to leave, he is said to have tapped the ground gently and said, “And yet it moves.’’
And like the Inquisitors in Galileo’s time, those denying today that political parties control district assemblies by stealth are probably waiting for further scientific evidence to change their views.
Perhaps Ghanaians should be allowed to move away from the 22- year-old local government system which appears to be dysfunctional.
Or could the country end up reaping widespread violence as Professor has warned?
The writer is the National Project Co-ordinator for Open Governance, Ghana Integrity Initiative (GII)