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Why Ghana Does Disputed Elections Better Than the United States

Lessons from democracy-building efforts abroad for use at home.

By , the senior director for policy and government relations at Humanity United.
The U.S. Capitol is seen behind the Washington Monument the day after a pro-Trump mob broke into the building on Jan. 7.
The U.S. Capitol is seen behind the Washington Monument the day after a pro-Trump mob broke into the building on Jan. 7.
The U.S. Capitol is seen behind the Washington Monument the day after a pro-Trump mob broke into the building on Jan. 7. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Maintaining democracy requires solid institutions like competent election management bodies and an independent judiciary. But it also takes sustained political leadership and society’s commitment to respect and abide by established norms. The danger of ignoring these norms can be fatal.

Yesterday, the U.S. Capitol building was overtaken by protesters who refused to accept the loss of their preferred candidate, President Donald Trump. The National Guard was activated in an attempt to bring order to the chaos that has resulted in the aftermath of an otherwise peaceful and properly conducted election. In the days, weeks, and years ahead, as the country does some soul searching to grapple with the consequences of eroding democratic norms, Ghana’s history with elections offers some lessons in how democracy is sustained.

Having previously suffered from a series of debilitating coups and military dictatorships, the West African nation has had six presidential elections since 2000, including three democratic transitions in which the party in power lost and the opposition peacefully assumed the presidency.

Maintaining democracy requires solid institutions like competent election management bodies and an independent judiciary. But it also takes sustained political leadership and society’s commitment to respect and abide by established norms. The danger of ignoring these norms can be fatal.

Yesterday, the U.S. Capitol building was overtaken by protesters who refused to accept the loss of their preferred candidate, President Donald Trump. The National Guard was activated in an attempt to bring order to the chaos that has resulted in the aftermath of an otherwise peaceful and properly conducted election. In the days, weeks, and years ahead, as the country does some soul searching to grapple with the consequences of eroding democratic norms, Ghana’s history with elections offers some lessons in how democracy is sustained.

Having previously suffered from a series of debilitating coups and military dictatorships, the West African nation has had six presidential elections since 2000, including three democratic transitions in which the party in power lost and the opposition peacefully assumed the presidency.

All of these elections were extremely competitive, and they often resulted in a runoff; on one occasion, in 2012, the losing candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, went to the courts to contest the results. The Ghanaian Supreme Court ruled against him, and Akufo-Addo eventually conceded. For a short period, though, it seemed unclear if he would accept defeat. Nevertheless, he did, and Ghana’s democratic consolidation continued. Four years later, Akufo-Addo won the election and assumed the presidency. Although the country’s democracy is stronger today, its most recent election this past December was messy—a reminder that the democratic process can be untidy and that maintaining democratic norms requires sustained effort.

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Kehinde A. Togun is the senior director for policy and government relations at Humanity United. He previously led democracy and governance programs in Eurasia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. He is a Truman National Security Fellow and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development. Twitter: @KehindeTogun

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