For Ghana, the United States Serves as a Cautionary Tale on Democratic Backsliding
As rioters stormed the US Capitol in protest of the 2020 presidential election results, some 5,000 odd miles away, another beacon of democracy also found itself in the midst of election-related chaos at the seat of its legislative branch. Ghana’s Speaker of Parliament election, a routine electoral proceeding in the wake of general elections, had descended into mayhem. This was characterized by disagreements over the technicalities of the constitutionally mandated secret ballot, ballot snatching by a ruling party MP, and physical violence between ruling and opposition party MPs, ultimately culminating in a restoration of order by the military. Due to its winner-takes-all political system, elections in Ghana are always a high-stakes affair. This is particularly so for the December 2020 elections where two critical developments following the vote, a legal dispute and an even allocation of legislative seats between the ruling and main opposition party, have further heightened stakes, leaving political parties jockeying for every scrap of political advantage.
Now, weeks on, both countries appear to be charting different paths in response to their infamous electoral violence incidents. In the US, an attempt at veering the country back on course after years of largely unchecked erosion to the democratic fabric is underway. In Ghana, the aftermath has primarily been marked by partisan-tinged commentary, with little to no critical action undertaken to address the disconcerting actions of the political elite. Though the chaos, the first of its kind in Ghana’s fourth republic, may be dismissed as a mere blip, its significance need not be overlooked, especially against the backdrop of ever increasing regional and global democratic backsliding.
As the US experience shows, seemingly inconsequential political developments, including those that feature momentarily as disruptions absent a wider view of their interconnectedness, are pivotal in laying the groundwork for the erosion of democratic norms if left unchecked. And for Ghana, a nascent, yet much vaunted democracy in West Africa, this is all the more important.
Preserving and protecting democratic principles require resilient institutions, ethical political leadership, and an unyielding commitment from both the citizenry and political elites to uphold and abide by established norms. However, as we have seen in the US, there is also a danger in relying on norms in principle only, particularly in an environment where the social fabric has been frayed by years of partisanship, without simultaneously ensuring their codification. During various moments in America’s jaunt towards the precipice, its institutions, a segment of the political leadership, and a sizeable number of American citizens demonstrated a blatant disregard for longstanding democratic norms. Many claimed that these very foundational norms either no longer applied universally, or, worse, only applied to a selective group who could reinterpret or reshape what those norms meant. Though, notably, the institutions have since stepped up to the task of safeguarding foundational ideals in recent months, political actors only began begrudgingly doing so following the January 6th Capitol attack. Simply put, the US had to come to the very precipice of extreme violence to step back from the brink. As the US embarks on its long journey of rebuilding, it presents a sobering reminder that maintaining democratic ideals requires sustained effort and offers up lessons for democracies, both old and new, across the globe.
For Ghana, which finds its Supreme Court being tested again eight years after the landmark election petition, the demonstrated independence of the various American courts in the face of mounting pressure should be noted.
Political leaders are entrusted to work towards society’s best interests and ethically uphold democratic principles. As exemplars for the populace, they are also expected to do so with decorum and in accordance with longstanding standards. In Ghana, the political elite, following the disappointing display in parliament, should be held to task. Reticent attitudes or lack of accountability from the legislature may symbolize a normalization of election-related violence. Though election violence has traditionally been limited in Ghana, any perceived hint of normalization and tacit approval can increase the scale of violence, erode the social fabric, and make acts once deemed as egregious or anathema to the preservation of a democratic system become more commonplace, as seen in the US. To counter this, the public needs to be politically engaged and increase its pressure on political leadership. This requires an engaged and informed civil society, which serves not only as a check on potential democratic backsliding, but also as partners in the development of policies and practices that help preserve the health of the democracy itself.
To be sure, Ghana is nowhere near the deep end in which the US found itself on January 6th, and there is no crystal ball to predict its political future. However, deviations from the democratic norm, when left to fester, have historically led to shocks that are often accompanied by violence. Within the context of a global democratic erosion, it is important that the young Ghanaian republic remain vigilant and committed to nurturing its democracy. In this way, the recent experience of the US has much to offer Ghana and other developing democracies on the perils of taking foundational and hard-won participatory democratic norms and principles for granted.
Wendy E.A. Wilson is currently a programs manager at the Fund for Peace. She works primarily on the group’s conflict early warning and response programs. Originally from Ghana, she holds a Bachelor’s in Government from the University of Virginia and a Master’s in Conflict Resolution from King’s College London.
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