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The consequences of free and fair elections

There is one pronouncement election stakeholders wait for at the end of every contest besides who won or lost. It is the judging of the election as free and fair.  


This is critical because that judgement has implications for the integrity of the electoral system. It also has consequences for the peace and stability of the country. 

The question “was an election free and fair” immediately brings up this question “who decides whether an election is free and fair or not?” This question is further complicated by another one -“how do we judge whether an election was free and fair or not?” 

The difficulty of these questions does not take away from the importance attached to this idea of “free and fair election.” 

Free and fair

Traditionally, we have judged election outcomes as free and fair in principally two ways. First, the presence of election observers and their assessment of the entire exercise as free and fair. Often perceived as impartial with no stake in the election outcome, their normative judgements are generally accepted as unbiased and objective. 

Second, the acceptability of the results by all parties gives validation to the freeness and fairness of an election. The moment contestants raise doubts about an election outcome, it immediately becomes tainted and difficult to give it the label “free and fair.”

What do Ghanaian voters say about whether our elections have been free and fair or not?  The Afrobarometer survey has some answers to this question. The aggregated results, over seven rounds of the survey, show this – a) 48 per cent of Ghanaians say elections have been completely free and fair; b) 26 per cent say free and fair but with minor problems; c) 11 per cent say free and fair but with major problems; d) nine per cent say not free and fair and e) six per cent say they do not know. 

The free and fair judgement we pass about elections has consequences. Of particular interest as we approach the 2024 election is how that judgement affects our trust in the Electoral Commission (EC).

Consequences for the EC

The role of the EC in ensuring a free and fair election is evident to many. It is solely responsible for ensuring the integrity of any election – both process and outcomes. Voters must perceive this body as neutral and treat all stakeholders with fairness. Their role is akin to that of a referee in a sporting game, who must ensure that the game ends well. And ending well means, in general, both process and outcomes must be positively judged by all stakeholders. 

In examining data from the Afrobarometer survey, this is what it reveals about the nexus between our judgements about election outcomes and its impact on how much we trust the Electoral Commission. 

For example, in Round 4 (2008) of the survey, 67 per cent of Ghanaians expressed trust (somewhat/a lot) in the EC. 

However, by Round Six (2014) of the survey, the trust level had dropped significantly to 37 per cent. Keep in mind that this survey round was preceded by the 2012 disputed election. Again, in survey Round 7 (2017), 57 per cent expressed trust in the Electoral Commission only to drop to 33 per cent in Round 9 (2022) because of the disputed 2020 election.

This pattern shows that a) whenever there is a disputed election, trust in the EC is eroded; and b) a period of recovery is needed to rebuild trust. 

Going into the 2024 election, the burden the EC carries is to ensure that in both process and outcome, Ghanaian voters and all stakeholders will accept the outcome as free and fair. The country cannot afford the luxury of further erosion of trust below the currently low levels in the institution.

Whenever I reflect on the current state of democracy in Ghana and the sub-region, I point out that while there are worrying signs, there are also hopeful signals. One such hopeful signal is the citizens continued strong faith in elections. 

In the Afrobarometer survey, when Ghanaians are presented with the choice of a) choosing leaders in the country through regular, open and honest elections or b) adopting other methods for choosing a leader because elections sometimes produce bad results, on average, a strong majority of 86 per cent support choosing leaders through elections. 

Another piece of evidence that points to our faith in elections is how it remains strong even in years of historically low trust in the EC. In survey round 6 (2014), although only 37 per cent trust the EC, nine out of 10, representing 87 per cent of Ghanaians still expressed support for elections. 

In the most recent round of the survey (2022), with only 33 per cent expressing trust in the EC, eight out of 10 Ghanaians, that is 84 per cent still support the use of elections as the method for choosing our leaders. 

 The writer is the Project Director, Democracy Project.

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