FLASHBACK: Former President John Mahama (right) introducing James Gyakye Quayson to the constituencts during one of the campaign tours ahead of the by-election
FLASHBACK: Former President John Mahama (right) introducing James Gyakye Quayson to the constituencts during one of the campaign tours ahead of the by-election

Lessons from the Assin North by-election

The Assin North by-election is over. We are back to where we started on January 7, 2021, an evenly split parliament plus one independent.

The New Patriotic Party (NPP) still retains its majority, but it is the sort of majority that caused major challenges in getting government programmes and policy priorities approved by parliament.

Assin North was descended upon very heavily by both parties. They left nothing to chance. On the NPP side, the President and his Vice showed up to campaign and not to count other major party figures. On the National Democratic Congress (NDC) side, flagbearer John Mahama and other major party figures also showed up. In the end, James Gyakye Quayson was duly elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Assin North.

Any lessons from this election? I can think of a few. NDC’s campaign narrative In any election campaign, political parties do not engage in single messaging to woo voters. However, a very close observation of the NDC campaign rhetoric showed that a key message of their campaign was justice.

Mr Gyakye Quayson, their candidate, was portrayed as a victim of an unjust system and process designed to prevent him from serving his people in Assin North. The NDC never missed an opportunity to remind the voters of Assin North that voting for Mr Gyakye Quayson would enable them “right” the “wrongs” of the process that invalidated his first election in 2020.

Voices from the incumbent who kept suggesting something untoward awaited the NDC candidate given the criminal case against him only helped to reinforce the message that the election was a referendum on justice.

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As I watched the news coverage of the election, it struck me that the justice campaign narrative was prevailing and was going to yield results. I was, therefore, not surprised at the election results. Messaging matters both in terms of a party’s own campaign message and also its ability to push back against any counter-messaging from its rivals.

Limits of incumbency advantage

We often hear of incumbency advantage during elections. It is the idea that incumbent parties have, at their disposal, state resources that can be used to influence the outcome of an election which opposition political parties do not have, thus giving them an upper hand.

Incumbency advantage also raises questions of abuse disguised as policy and programme implementation or as attempts to address the development needs of a community. The incumbency descended heavily on Assin North to make a case for the election of its candidate. In the end, voters prevailed and made their choice, demonstrating that incumbency may have its advantages, but it also does have its limits.

The role of inducements

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, Ghana’s Centre for Democratic Development’s (CDD-Ghana) first preelection survey examined popular opinions on electoral irregularities in Ghana. One of the irregularities was the incidence of vote buying. Five things struck me about our attitudes on the issue. First, six in ten Ghanaians (60 per cent) believed political parties and candidates engage in vote buying during elections.

Second, close to half (48 per cent) cited money as the main form of vote-buying technique used by parties and candidates. Third, seven in
ten Ghanaians (68 per cent) agreed that vote buying is wrong and punishable. Fourth, 47 per cent said they will refuse money from a candidate in exchange for their voteand cast their ballot for their preferred candidates. Fifth, 42 per cent said they will take the money, but still vote for their preferred candidates. Since the 2016 election, whether during party primaries or general elections, we continue to bemoan the use of money as inducements during campaigns.

In Assin North, there were several reports of money sharing. It was also quite funny to see several voters mocking the losing candidate with a song which essentially said, “We took your money” but still voted against you. These voters in the videos showed no feelings of remorse. We are yet to deal with this issue in our elections.

Until then, I hope parties and candidates recognise that the use of inducements is a risky gamble with no guarantees of victory. The temptation may be to outdo your opponent in an election, but I really hope that is not a temptation parties and candidates will yield to.

The often-quoted statement “fear candidates” can easily be rephrased as “fear voters.”

Implications for 2024

What does this mean for 2024? If you are the incumbent party, you are likely to say “Assin North has nothing to do with the 2024 election”. If you are the main opposition party, you will definitely seize on the Assin North win and trumpet it as a sign of greater things to come in 2024. There is no doubt that the incumbent is vulnerable, going into the 2024 election and a loss in a competitive constituency does not offer any comforts.

The writer is a fellow at the Centre for Democratic Development-Ghana (CDD-Ghana)

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