President John Kufuor of Ghana faces presidential and parliamentary elections in December with two distinct advantages under his belt: four years of solid economic achievement and the fact that he beat his main rival, opposition leader John Atta Mills, at the previous poll in 2000.
Good world prices for cocoa and gold, two of Ghana's main exports, have helped Kufuor to push the West African country's economic growth rate over five percent. Meanwhile, his government's reputation for good governance has won the hearts of western donors.
Under Kufuor's leadership, Ghana qualified last June for substantial debt relief under the World Bank's Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. This will slash the country's US$6 billion external debt in half over 20 years and reduce debt service payments by $320 million a year.
Yet despite this progress, most ordinary Ghanaians remain desperately poor.
Many poor rural families are still reduced to selling their children to people traffickers to make ends meet or attempting the dangerous journey across the Sahara desert themselves to try and emigrate clandestinely to Europe.
Seldom a week goes by without a planeload of those unfortunate enough to be caught by the Libyan authorities arriving back home from Tripoli.
Although Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve independence in 1957, it only ranks 131st out of the 177 countries listed in United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index.
The country has a per capita income of just US$304 per year and nearly 45 percent of its population live below the official UN poverty line of less than a dollar a day.
Education is the voters' top priority
A nationwide survey of voter attitudes published by the National Commission for Civic Education in August showed that ordinary people wanted their politicians to focus above all on improving education. That was the number one concern of 42 percent of the 6,000 people interviewed.
Their other top priorities were health, unemployment and agriculture.
In recent years, Ghana has established a reputation for tolerance, genuine democracy and clean elections.
The 2000 polls were universally regarded as free and fair and the Electoral Commission is widely expected to see fair play once more in this year's elections.
A coalition of 25 civil society groups called the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers, bolstered by a US government grant of US$400,000, will deploy 4,800 monitors across the country on polling day to make sure it does.
"The only guarantee of incident-free elections rests on the citizenry being alive to their responsibilities," said Larry Bimi,chairman of the National Commission for Civic Education. "There will be no chaos if political parties do not take advantage of the ignorance of the electorate to cheat on polling day."
|Children in Cape Coast, Ghana|
Political analysts say Kufuor and Atta Mills are both likely to attract a substantial proportion of the popular vote in a close race with no other serious contenders.
But many predict that when the votes are counted, Kufuor and his NPP will have won a further four years in power.
Kufuor polled 48.2 percent of the vote in the first round of voting in the 2000 presidential election, when he and his New Patriotic Party (NPP) drew most of their support from the Akan-speaking people of south central Ghana.
Akan speakers comprise about half of Ghana's 19 million people and the NPP is closely identified with them.
Atta Mills, whose National Democratic Congress (NDC) party was founded by former president Jerry Rawlings, polled 44.9 percent and did best in southern Ghana, although crucially he was defeated in the capital Accra.
The narrow gap between the two men widened in the second round runoff as Kufuor pulled ahead with 56.7 percent.
Independent study predicts Kufuor will win
There are no regular opinion polls in Ghana, but the Accra-based Institute of Economic Affairs conducted a nationwide survey of political attitudes in December 2003 which concluded that Kufuor, 65, and his NPP would win a second term.
However, it cautioned that he was unlikely to win a landslide victory.
Kwesi Jonah, the author of the study, which was published in May, told IRIN, he had seen nothing since then to make him change his mind.
"Short-term variations in voter opinion are not possible in Ghana because of the influence of structural variables such as ethnicity, low literacy levels, low levels of socio-economic development, the level of poverty, the under-developed media and poor information flows," he said.
"This means that the outcome of an election is not determined in the election year, or at least, that very little can happen to change voter opinion in an election year," he added.
A professor of political science in Ghana, who asked not to be named, also predicted a win for Kufuor.
He credited the Oxford-trained lawyer with a good first term in office. Besides noting Kufuor's economic achievements, he also highlighted his pivotal role in regional diplomacy to bring peace to Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire in his capacity as chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
"Kufuor's vision of creating opportunities in the rural areas through his various agricultural-based initiatives and his peace efforts stand him in good stead in the eyes of the people," the university don said.
The professor also predicted that voters would remember with misgivings the economic mismanagement which characterised the NDC's eight years in office during the 1990s, when Rawlings was still president.
In the shadow of Jerry Rawlings
In fact, one of Atta Mills's problems is that he still lives very much in the shadow of Rawlings, a flamboyant air force officer, who first came to power in a 1979 coup and dominated Ghana as head of state for most of the next 20 years.
After serving two successive terms as elected president in the 1990's, "Junior Jesus," as he is affectionately known by his followers, is now banned by the constitution from standing again.
Atta Mills, a former law professor at the University of Ghana and a keen sportsman, is regarded as respectable and as eminent a figure as Kufuor, but the 60-year-old opposition leader has failed to capture the popular imagination in the same way as Rawlings.
Critics also accuse Atta Mills of being indecisive.
"To me, he is a sharp contrast to his political mentor, ex-president Rawlings, quiet and unassuming," said the professor of political science. "But his inability to be firm and decisive is one issue that remains his bane."
But then again, Kufuor, while praised for his patience, is also widely criticised for being a slow decision maker.
In terms of policies, there is little to choose between the two men.
Both promise social and economic improvement and their formula for achieving it is remarkably similar; a continuation of government efforts to promote free enterprise and agriculture while curbing red tape.
"An Atta Mills government will focus on the welfare of the people, fight the high level of poverty and create employment for the country's youthful population," said Seth Ofori-Ohene, the opposition leader's official spokesman.
Kufuor's supporters, meanwhile, are campaigning on the president's record of achievement so far.
|Map of Ghana|
"The growing open administration, stable internal security, as evidenced by the drastic decline in the crime rate, the favourable food situation, the all-time high in cocoa production and the absence of protracted industrial unrest all go to make 2004 a good year," said presidential press secretary Kwabena Agyepong.
Many fail to share the new prosperity
Kufuor belongs to the powerful Ashanti ethnic group of south central Ghana. Over the past years, he has assiduously courted the tribal leaders of this powerful community, which controls most of the country's strategic cocoa and gold production.
But come polling day, his main problem may be that many ordinary Ghanaians do not feel in their own pocket and stomach the economic successes which his government presents on paper.
"Figures do not mean anything in the pockets of the ordinary citizen," said Joe Nartey, a spare parts dealer in Accra. "Why stabilise the economy when people are dying of hunger and cannot afford three square meals a day?" he asked.
Kwame Aponsah, a mechanic, told IRIN that he would definitely vote for Kufuor. "He has done enough in the areas of education, health, roads etc to merit a second term. I would be blind to vote for another person," he said.
But Efua Nsiah, who sells tomatoes on the streets of the capital, said she instinctively preferred Atta Mills, who belongs to the Fanti ethnic group of southern Ghana. "The few times I saw him on television, he gave me the picture of an honest and dedicated man, willing to die for the nation," she said.
In the end, whoever wins, the election is unlikely to change Ghana's enviable status as a beacon of democracy, good governance and economic growth in a troubled region of Africa.
John Danso, a banker said both were Kufuor and Atta Mills were men of peace and honour.
"I'll not be surprised if either of them wins the elections. All we need is the best for the country," he said.
Meanwhile, the Ghana's free and independent media are having a field day. Even to the point where the colourful and incisive language used by many of the callers on popular phone-in radio programmes to describe politicians is causing concern.
"The use of language undermines the peace and stability of the country. We must not take the peace we are enjoying as a nation for granted," said Bernard Amable, a political science student at Legon University in Accra.