The results in Ghana’s presidential election on December 7 could be very close and President Obama should demonstrate his support for a peaceful and transparent process

Barrack Obama applauded Ghana’s extraordinary democratic progress and political maturity when he made that country his first stop in Africa after becoming President. As he prepares to leave office, he can help Ghana take another step forward.

Ghana is facing a particularly tight presidential contest next week, and the U.S. President should speak out in favor of a free, fair and peaceful process.

The Political Scene

The outcome is likely to be a repeat of 2011, when - after a bitter and hard fought campaign - the winner emerged with a very narrow victory. But the stakes this year are much higher than previously, and the prospects of a disputed outcome and ensuing violence are greater.

The two main candidates - President John Mahama of the All People's Congress (APC) and Nana Akufu-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) - are facing one another for a second time, and the reputation each of man will rise or fall on the outcome. In 2011, Mahama received 50.7 percent of the votes – just enough to avoid a runoff. Akufa-Addo, who got 47.5 percent, challenged the results in court but accepted them when his legal case was dismissed.

This time, Akufo-Addo and his supporters may not go quietly if he loses another close contest. The NPP standard bearer in the last three presidential elections, losing both times by less than five percentage points, he continues to believe that he was cheated in 2011. At 72 years of age, he knows that he is not likely to run again.

Akufo-Addo has professed a strong commitment to free and fair elections but has set the stage for a turbulent finish by accusing the government and the election commission of pre-election mischief and by refusing to state clearly and publicly that he will turn to the courts to adjudicate any election disputes. He

believes that circumstances favor him in 2016 and has said that his supporters will not accept another fraudulent defeat.

For Mahama, the election is a referendum on his presidential performance and a validation of his close and disputed 2011 election victory. During his tenure, Mahama's government has come under repeated criticism for high levels of corruption, poor economic performance and a steady decline in government services. Mahama believes that a convincing election victory will silence his critics and reaffirm his public support.

Several other factors are contributing to heightened tensions.

New Election Commissioner

For the first time in over two decades, Ghana has a new election commissioner -- Charlotte Osei. Ghana's former election commissioner, Dr. Kwadwo Afari Gyan, was respected for his professionalism and honesty. He had managed Ghana's last six presidential elections, and he gained a reputation for impartiality and integrity. Well regarded for her legal skills, the new commissioner has come under criticism with the opposition questioning her personal friendship with Mahama and her lack of previous election management experience.

Rise of Armed Political Gangs

Civil society activists are concerned about the emergence of armed political militias associated with the main political parties as well as with individual political leaders. Although party militias are common in a number of west African states, this is new in Ghana. Most are comprised of young, unemployed youth.

The gangs protect politicians, police party rallies, intimidate opposing candidates and disrupt the activities of other political parties. Police have moved to control the activities and proliferation of these gangs, and party leaders have publicly disavowed or downplayed them, but they exist and could pose a destabilizing threat in the event of a closely contested or disputed outcome.

Integrity of the Judiciary

There is also growing uncertainty among some civil society organizations and opposition groups about the judiciary’s ability to withstand political pressure, corruption and intimidation if called upon again to adjudicate a close election outcome.

Ten percent of Ghana's judges were forced to stand down in early 2016 because of their involvement in court related corruption scandals. Civil society groups have also complained about the manner in which Mahama has dealt with recent intimidation directed at the country's high court chief justice by young thugs associated with the president's party. After the three individuals were convicted and jailed for threatening to rape and murder the chief justice, Mahama commuted their sentences.

The Economy

Despite concerns about the judiciary, the new election commissioner and the emergence of politically affiliated youth gangs, Ghana’s elections may turn on the state of the country’s economy.

The country has experience prolonged slump for the past four years, and the government has not been able to reverse the situation. The government's 2015 IMF program has brought marginal improvement to monetary and fiscal problems, but a major turnaround is not likely until sometime in 2017 or later – well after next week’s vote. If the elections go badly and result in violence or a prolonged electoral dispute, the country's economic recovery will be held hostage.

The current economic slowdown is a result of both domestic and external factors. Cocoa production, a leading component in the agricultural sector, has been flat over the past two years and has failed to reach its targets in 2014 and 2015. Production from the first harvest of 2016 also fell short of expectations, due largely to insufficient rains and extremely dry weather conditions.

Global oil prices have also diminished the impact of recent oil discoveries. Production from Ghana's first oil field in 2012 did not significantly boost national revenue, and the recent start of production in the country's second major field is not expected to give the economy much of a bounce.

Inflation is running at close to 18 percent, and the cost of borrowing locally remains high, running at over 20 percent. Foreign reserves are down and the country’s currency, the cedi - which lost 18 percent against the dollar in 2015 - remains weak.

Corruption is also on the rise. There are serious and credible accusations that officials in the government have taken bribes on contracts, including on the lease of power barges used to reduce the country's power outages.

The government's management of the economy is its greatest vulnerability and could have an impact on the election outcome if the opposition is able to capitalize on this weakness. There is growing discontent in urban areas over poor government services -- recurring power shortages, water shortages, higher utility prices and increased costs for medical services and educational expenses.

But a flawed election, in which there is a contested outcome, major allegations of corruption and significant outbreaks of violence will undermine the prospect for a 2017 recovery, slow down agriculture and gold production, frighten off new investors and reduce the government's ability to seek additional Eurobond funding.

Too Close To Call

The outcome for December remains too close to call. Both of the leading candidates bring both assets and liabilities to the race. Despite a flagging economy and diminishing support in urban areas, especially Accra, Mahama has incumbency and the power of the presidency on his side.

He also has a united, well organized and determined party behind him as well as strong support from a significant portion of the rural population who have not felt the impact of the country's economic problems. Government promises and patronage along with government largesse in its strongholds will help turn out voters in favor of the President.

Nana Akufo-Addo also has a number of factors in his favor including the flagging economy and dissatisfaction with corruption, inflation and growing unemployment. He also has challenges. His party has not been united behind his candidacy - a number of party stalwarts opposed his heading the NPP ticket for a third successive time. Some have accused the party of focusing too much on discrediting the process and rather than focusing on the issues.

A Positive Role for President Obama

The Obama Administration has already taken some steps to support a successful election process, but it could do more. In addition to financing a parallel vote count and funding local and international civil observation teams, President Obama should:

  • ·        Telephone both candidates and encourage them to uphold Ghana’s democratic traditions, pledge support for free, fair and peaceful elections and eschew any violence.

  • ·        Record a public service message to the people of Ghana encouraging them to support the country’s electoral process and to respect the outcome without violence.

  • ·        Publicly support and endorse the work of the National Peace Committee, Ghana’s respected political elders and regional organizations as they promote a transparent and peaceful election outcome.

  • ·        Encourage the British Government to make a parallel appeal to both leading candidates.

  • President Obama has been a strong advocate for multi-party democracy, good governance and peaceful elections. Support for these elections would cement his cement that legacy.

Ambassador Johnnie Carson, who served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa from 2009 to 2012, is Senior Advisor to the president of the United States Institute of Peace. He is co-leader to the observer mission for Ghana’s election jointly sponsored by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.