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07.12.2004 Politics

Strong Turnout in Ghana Presidential Vote

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ACCRA, Ghana (AP) - Urged to wield the "power of the thumb," Ghana's people exercised it in force Tuesday - pressing ink-moistened thumbs to ballots in an presidential election marking the growing steadiness of some older democracies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Voters were deciding the re-election bid of economic reformer President John Kufuor, waiting for hours in lines that built long before dawn in the Atlantic coast capital.

"I didn't mind at all," said 35-year-old commercial driver David Adu-Sarpong, dismissing a wait that began at 4:20 a.m. "My vote is my power."

Ghanaians hope the "power of the thumb" - a phrase plastered on posters across the West African nation - would prolong more than a decade of peace in a country where coups once were commonplace and democracy was dismissed by the butt of a gun.

Senegal and Mali, among others, since have seen opposition figures gain the top office. Easing of Cold War tensions that fed decades of conflict is helping some other African nations start or stabilize democracies. In the Sahara nation of Niger on Tuesday, provisional results showed President Mamadou Tandja winning re-election in a vote that monitors said was free and fair - making Tandja the first elected leader in that West African nation's history to complete a term without assassination or coup.

Kufuor's election in 2000 marked the first peaceful transition of power in Ghana since it gained independence from Britain in 1957.

Ghana was the first former colony in Africa to win independence, igniting a fierce independence movement that swept the continent in the early 1960s. That place in history is a point of pride for Ghanaians, who feel the 2000 elections did much to reclaim their legacy in a region ripped apart by political instability and corruption.

Radio DJs, pastors and government officials preached peace and tolerance ahead of the vote.

"We must demonstrate to the rest of the world, particularly Africa," declared an editorial in the Daily Graphic, Ghana's biggest newspaper, "that when we say we were the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence, that it is not for cosmetic purposes."

Democratic and economic development were the major campaign issues.

Kufuor inherited an emerging economy from Rawlings, who had put in place economic formulas suggested by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Rawlings also held free and fair elections in 1992 and 1996, in which he soundly defeated Kufuor.

Kufuor's microeconomic policies and attention to bolstering the private sector have improved the economy, particularly cocoa exports, Ghana's biggest industry, along with gold mining and tourism. This year's cocoa crop was the largest since 1965.

People also credit Kufuor for maintaining a quality of life rarely seen on the continent: In Ghana, roads are paved, traffic lights work, electricity runs and police respond when called.

Per capita income has risen, yet the average Ghanaian still only earns $450 per year. According to the government, unemployment is at 20 percent.

"Whoever wins needs to create jobs," said Emma Tandon, 25, who stood in line at Accra's Nkrumah Flats polling station. "Most of us students who've finished school are still sitting at home. Four years ago they promised us jobs, and look at me, I'm still here."

Electoral Commission chairman Kwadwo Afari-Gyen reported turnout "very high" and said he expected most of the 10 million eligible voters to cast ballots. No major irregularities were reported Tuesday, although international monitors withheld definitive judgment until after the vote.

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