The Forthcoming District Level Elections: Legal Framework, Challenges and Prospects
The expression “District Level Election” is used to refer to the District Assembly and the Unit Committee Elections. The first District Assembly Elections were held in 1988 to 1989 under the provision of the PNDCL 207. Essentially the background to Ghana’s decentralization Policy is derived from the fact that a greater majority of the citizenry were excluded from the management of the public affairs of the country and more importantly in governance in the past. As a result “power to the people” and grassroots participation “were the catch phrases that underpinned the decentralization policy hence the creation of the local government units made up of the various Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) in 1998 to devolve power to the local and community levels to enable people participate actively in governance, including decision-making that shape their very lives and livelihoods.
Legal framework and main features of district level elections
It must be stated emphatically that the District Level Elections, like the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections are also public elections. The law states that the District Level and Unit Committee Elections are conducted every four years. People are elected to the lower local government structure. The laws that regulate the District Level Elections are Act473 of 1994 and C.I.18 of 1998 as amended by the District Assembly Elections (Amendment) Act 801 and C.I.68 of 2010. The Electoral Areas are now conterminous with the Units. There are currently 6,156 Electoral Areas and hence 6,156 units. The District Level Elections law requires among others that candidate for the District Assembly and Unit Committee Elections contest the elections strictly as an individual and not as a matter of political party or an organization or group. To stress home better, the District Assembly Level Elections are expected to be non-partisan in nature. Thus under the law it is wrong on the part of any political party to endorse or sponsor a favourable candidate. No candidate is also supposed to use party colours, symbols and slogans during campaign. Any political party that is caught breaching the rules is liable to a conviction to pay a fine not exceeding 500 Ghana Cedis. Any contesting candidate who also breaches the rules would have his or her nomination cancelled. Also it is among the rules that for the purpose of the District Level Election, a person is deemed to be ordinary resident if he or she has within four years to the date of the elections lived in the District for an aggregate of not less than 12 months. Furthermore a person is not qualified to stand as a candidate if he or she is exempted from payment of basic rates. Again a student who has no other source of income other than the allowance, loan or grant that enables him or her to attend an educational institution is disqualified to contest.
Unlike the Presidential and Parliamentary elections, the candidate for the District Level Election is not expected to pay anything as deposit. In the past the law did not allow candidates to mount their own platforms but were allowed to do house to house campaigns. But with the amendment in 2010 candidates were allowed to mount their own platforms. The law also permits Organizations which are not affiliated to political parties and want to assist towards the conduct of the District Level Elections to give assistance in cash or in kind by rooting it through the Electoral Commission to organize platform for the common use of the candidates (Sections 6(1) and (2) of Act 801.
Challenges of the district level elections
Statistics of past results of District Level Elections show that low turn-out is among the major challenges when it comes to the District Level Elections. At the just-ended Media training workshop on the theme: “Improving the Quality of Information in the Electoral Process,” organized by the Electoral Commission in Bolgatanga for media practitioners as part of preparation for the forthcoming District Level Election slated for March this year , the Deputy Chairman of the Electoral Commission in charge of operations, Mr Amadu Sulley, regretted the situation and said the highest turn-out was 59 per cent which occurred in 1988 and 1999 before the coming into force of the 1992 Constitution.
To quote from the Deputy Commissioner, “This is very regrettable because local government is self-government. Unlike the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections where people turn out in their numbers to vote, it is usually not so with district level elections”.
Another major challenge that is envisioned in the forthcoming District Level Election is the breaching of the non-partisan clause of the law. Despite the fact that the law stipulates that no political party should support any candidate and no candidate should use Political Party slogan, colours and symbols during campaigns, these are often being breached by Political Parties and candidates. This provision is often difficult to implement.
Aside the above, another major challenge is the huge cost involved in organizing the District Level Elections. Compared to the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections, it is very expensive to organize the district level elections.
The Deputy Commissioner of the Electoral Commission at the just ended media training indicated that whilst under the Presidential Elections, one set of ballot papers were printed and 275 set of ballots printed for parliamentary, that of the District Assembly and Unit Committee Elections were 6,156 set of ballots each.
Furthermore the calibre of candidates who normally contest the District Assembly Elections is also a major issue. Majority of the people who either win the election or are appointed by the government do not perform well at the Assembly sittings. This is because most of such candidates are put there based on their political affiliation and not based on their competency to deliver.
Low level of women and Persons With Disabilities representation is another bane of the District Level Elections. Past District Level Elections had shown that only handful of such persons are either elected or appointed to the District Assemblies
It is imperative for any nation that wants to develop meaningfully to give more opportunities to women to help bring about balance, equity and speedy development.
Most Media Practitioners also lacked knowledge on electoral laws particularly when it comes to election reporting and often misinform the public with wrong figures and information which has the tendency of inflaming passions.
Prospects of the district level elections and the way forward
It is very significant to state that addressing the challenges confronting the District Level Elections and given it’s a priority just like that of the Presidential and Parliament Elections would no doubt help improve upon Ghana’s democratic credentials.
Media Practitioners must listen to the appeal made by the Electoral Commission and other Non-Governmental Organizations, by whipping up the interest of the public to file and to turn up massively for the forthcoming District Level elections. Recently a research conducted in the Ghanaian Media landscape indicated that radio gave only one per cent to the coverage of the District Level Election, whilst the print media gave zero per cent. This is very abysmal. Equal platforms should be created for all candidates, irrespective of their religious, political, social and ethnic backgrounds. As Media Practitioners we must desist from declaring election results by describing it as “stolen verdict or rigged.” Unless they emanate from the EC, and as well as cross-check our facts very well from the electoral officials to enable us report accurately during election periods and also avoid using inflammatory language. We must bear in mind that the only body that had been mandated by the Constitution to declare election results is the EC. Media Practitioners should not allow their political sentiments to influence them during election reporting.
It is also incumbent upon all the Political Parties to make sure they abide by the rules of the game by not supporting and sponsoring candidates from their party on their campaigns. Moreover, candidates must also be careful not to infringe on the rules of the game, by using party slogan, colours and symbols in their campaigns since they could having their nomination cancelled by the Electoral Commission.
Traditional authorities should break the cultural barriers that prevent women from contesting for elections and to encourage more women to participate actively in the elections.
The Electorates and government should ensure that they elect and appoint the right calibre of persons who can champion the development agenda at the District level, to make greater impact on the livelihoods of the people. Government, must also as a matter of urgency, release the necessary funding and logistics to the Electoral Commission on time, to enable it execute the task ahead of it.
Finally, it is incumbent upon media professionals to study the electoral laws very well, so that they can inform the electorate to make informed choices.
To sum up, just as we give special attention to the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections , let us as stakeholders, give equal attention to the District Level Elections, in order to make our democratic process complete. There is the need for every Ghanaian, especially journalists, the leadership of the various political parties, the security agencies, to play their respective roles very well to place the District Level Elections on an equal footing as the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections, so as to help improve upon Ghana’s democratic credentials.