Ghana's politics and its most recent general elections

In December 2020 Ghanaians went to the polls to elect a president and members of Parliament. The incumbent head of state and leader of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP), President Nana Akufo-Addo, was re-elected in the first round of voting over former President John Dramani Mahama, the candidate for the main opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC). This marked the third time that the two men have faced each other for political office, with then-Vice President Mahama defeating Akufo-Addo in 2012 and Akufo-Addo defeating Mahama in 2016.

The 2020 election marked the seventh general election since the return to full democracy in 1996, and was generally a free and fair event, held with minimal security. As a unitary parliamentary republic with a unicameral legislature and independent judiciary, Ghana’s constitutional order also recognises the importance of its regions, each of which have their own assemblies and local government units. The Constitution of the Fourth Republic ensures the unitary nature of the state while leaving room for decentralisation, greater freedoms and an emphasis on human rights, alongside a US-inspired presidential system


The current constitution has significantly evolved since the days of the Independence Constitution of 1957, which was amended in 1960 to depose the Queen of Britain as the country’s figurehead and introduce a presidential system. A subsequent constitutional amendment in 1964 turned the country into a one-party state. After years of alternating military regimes and republican periods, Jerry Rawlings’ coup d’état of 1981 symbolised the latest period of military rule; however, a constitutional reform process began in the early 1990s and a constitution drafted by a consultative assembly was approved by a popular referendum in 1992.

The new constitution marked the beginning of a democratisation phase, even if the 1992 election was considered unfair by most observers and boycotted by the opposition. However, the constitutional order it helped bring about not only enabled the freer 1996 elections in which Rawlings was re-elected, but also the watershed general election in 2020 that allowed the opposition NPP to assume power. All of the elections since the reform have been overseen by that constitutional regime, called the Constitution of the Fourth Republic, which came into force on January 7, 1993. It ensures the unitary nature of the state while leaving room for decentralisation, greater freedoms and an emphasis on human rights, alongside a US-inspired presidential system.

Executive Branch

According to the constitution, a president serves a four-year term and may sit for two terms over the course of their political career. As head of state and head of government, the president must uphold the constitution, implement laws passed by Parliament and ensure the functioning of public services. The president also serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Any citizen of Ghana above 18 years old is entitled to vote in elections. In a presidential election a run-off vote can be avoided if a candidate achieves more than 50% of the vote in the first round, which occurred with the incumbent president’s re-election in 2020. The president can declare a state of emergency and sign executive orders – the president may, however, be removed by a supermajority vote in the legislature and with due constitutional process.

With prior consultation with the Cabinet, the president is vested with the power to appoint senior public officials such as members of the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice, the Council of Ministers (the Cabinet) and members of advisory bodies like the National Security Council. The president’s authority extends to initiating referendums and signing treaties. Matters of chieftaincy are communicated to the president by the House of Chiefs, while a Council of State – composed of prominent citizens and elected representatives from each of the 16 regions of Ghana – counsels the president on national issues and his or her performance of their functions. The seat of government and the president’s residence was moved to Jubilee House in Accra in 2005, with the previous residence being Osu castle, a Danish-Norwegian fort.

Legislative Branch

The Parliament is a unicameral assembly, and its mandate includes law-making, representation, deliberation and oversight, ranging from the use of public funds to the conduct of the president and the Cabinet. Members of Parliament represent the 275 single-seat constituencies in Ghana and are elected via the first-past-the-post system for an uncapped number of four-year terms. Parliamentary consent is required for appointments of senior executive, judicial or civil service positions.

Alban Bagbin from the opposition NDC party is the current speaker and was chosen by lawmakers in 2021; according to the constitution, the speaker presides over all sittings of Parliament but is not allowed to vote himself. Parliamentary committees such as the Finance Committee and the Education Committee allow for specific issues to be referred first to specialist councils in order to streamline proceedings for Parliament.

Judicial Branch

The independence of the judiciary is enshrined in Article 127 of the constitution. In many ways, the legal system and the judicial hierarchy are predicated on British common law, while Ghana’s uncodified customary law is also accommodated by the constitution’s provisions, and protects matters of tradition, chieftaincy, inheritance, family law and societal relations.

At the apex of the legal system sits the Supreme Court, comprising 13 judges as of January 2021; Kwasi Anin-Yeboah is the current Chief Justice. As the head of the judiciary system in Ghana, the Chief Justice also partakes in the Court of Appeals, the High Court and 16 regional tribunals. The president can appoint Supreme Court justices after consultation with the Judicial Council and the approval of Parliament. The lower court system consists of circuit courts, district courts and juvenile courts, among others. The Superior Courts of Judicature supervise the lower courts.

Regional & Local Government

Local government functions are carried out by metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies (MMDAs). The principles and institutions of local government were enshrined in the 1993 constitution, marking a break with the tradition of centralised governance that defined Ghana both in the colonial and post-independence periods. In a 2018 referendum voters overwhelmingly approved a motion to raise the number of regions in the country from 10 to 16, which was implemented shortly thereafter. The expansion reflected the fulfilment of a campaign promise by President Akufo-Addo. The president appoints 16 regional ministers to the Council of Ministers with the approval of Parliament, while the nomination of regional representatives to the Council of State is made by electoral colleges in each region.

MMDAs maintain respective local government hierarchies. As of 2021 there are 261 MMDAs across Ghana. Metropolitan assemblies serve urban regions with 250,000 or more inhabitants, while municipal assemblies operate in towns, and district assemblies oversee certain geographical areas and any settlements within them. Local elections are held every four years and contribute 70% of the assemblies’ members, while the appointment of the other 30% remains the prerogative of the president. District chief executives are responsible for the administration of local authority in the country. The lowest local government sub-structures are unit committees, which number around 16,000 across the country. These committees are delegated tasks by the assemblies, and have both elected and appointed members. Fiscal decentralisation is enshrined in the constitution, leading to upward adjustments of the District Assemblies Common Fund over the years that released a higher share of national government revenue to district assemblies. National government transfers to metropolitan and municipal assemblies have also been on the rise.

2020 Elections

The most recent general elections were held on December 7th, 2020, resulting in the incumbent president Akufo-Addo of the NPP re-elected along with his running mate Mahamudu Bawumia after securing 51.3% of the vote. The president winning a second term marked a loss for his main opponent, former President John Mahama of the NDC, and his running mate, Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang, who gathered 47.4% of the votes. The turnout for the election was healthy, at nearly 80%.

Unlike in the 2016 elections, Mahama initially contested the results of the election but relented once the Supreme Court upheld the incumbent’s re-election result. Despite a brief outburst of post-election violence, the 2020 elections were favourably assessed by observers who highlighted a continuation of democratic processes in Ghana and commended the country for holding a successful election during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, as a result of the election the incumbent’s party lost its majority in Parliament and won as many seats as the NDC. This outcome led to a hung Parliament, in which the balance of power between the government and the opposition rests on one independent candidate. This near-equal balance led to difficulties agreeing on the 2022 budget in late 2021.

The regional distribution of votes in the 2020 election reflected previous outcomes: the Volta region voted overwhelmingly for Mahama, at 84.4% – a larger share compared to the 2016 election’s 81%. The Ashanti region again largely backed Akufo-Addo, at 71.6%, compared to 76% in 2016. The capital region’s candidate of choice was Mahama by a very thin margin, with 51% voting for the NDC and 48.1% for the NPP. Overall, voting patterns were strikingly similar to the 2016 election, with Akufo-Addo triumphing in most southern regions, while the opposition-voting regions were concentrated in the north and west of the country.

Voter Sentiment

In 2016 popular dissatisfaction with the economic slowdown helped Akufo-Addo win the election. For the incumbent, the 2020 elections were complicated by his divided NPP party and the worsening economic outlook due to the Covid-19 pandemic. There were few fundamental ideological differences between the two candidates in the election, and the campaigning was mainly predicated on the candidates’ popularity and promises. To remedy the NPP’s lacklustre efforts in hospital construction, President Akufo-Addo put forth Agenda 111 that promises 101 new district hospitals, seven regional hospitals, two specialised hospitals and one hospital renovation (see Health & Education chapter).

Polls exhibited a range of economic concerns on behalf of voters, spanning from corruption to the effects of Covid-19. Ghanaians increasingly disapproved of the country’s economic indicators, with about one-third of voters rating the situation as “fairly good” or “very good” in surveys – a 35% decline when compared with the 2017 benchmark. Negative assessments of the economy were largely shaped by lower evaluations of living conditions; therefore, employment, infrastructure, education and health were priority concerns for many voters. However, voter satisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic likely helped propel President Akufo-Addo to a re-election win.

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