Alex Vines
Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme

This time last year Kenya's presidential and parliamentary elections ended in a major crisis, resulting in ethnic violence, killings and destruction of property and widespread displacement in the Rift Valley and in Nairobi's shanty towns. This year, on 28 December, Ghana, another 'stable' African country, goes to run-off presidential polls.

Ghana is different. It obtained its independence from Britain in 1957 and set the trend for decolonization in Africa. More than half a century later, its elections could mark a watershed for multiparty elections in Africa.

Ghana's presidential and legislative elections on 7 December 2008 passed peacefully. Turnout was at least as high as in 2004, with disaffected voters choosing instead to spoil their ballots: out of 8.6 million cast, more than 200,000, or 2.4% of the total, were rejected. A British-trained barrister, Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP), fell just short of the 50% threshold required to win the presidency outright. John Atta Mills, leader of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and former Fulbright scholar, ran him a close second with around 48% of the vote. Both men are competing to replace President John Kufuor, who is constitutionally barred from standing for a third term.

The closeness of the elections has surprised few Ghana observers. The country's vibrant civil society and independent media have been vigilant. International donors too, drawing on lessons from Kenya, have supported early election monitoring and have pressured the Electoral Commission of Ghana to be effective and impartial. Given the closeness of the race, the effectiveness and impartiality of the Electoral Commission is vital in ruling on disputed electoral returns. If the run-off occurs smoothly, these elections will confirm the vitality of Ghana's nascent fledgling democratic institutions and set an example for the rest of Africa.

Historically the president's party has also controlled parliament in Ghana, but for the first time one party may win the presidential race but fail to secure an absolute majority in parliament. It looks likely that the ruling NPP will be punished by voters for high inflation, a lacklustre anti-corruption drive and controversial grand projects. President Kufuor was awarded the 2008 Chatham House Prize for his peacemaking efforts but his reputation at home is mixed. He recently moved into a new presidential complex, Golden Jubilee House, which is thought to have cost some $50 million, funded by a concessionary loan from the government of India and constructed by an Indian firm. The NDC has condemned the project as extravagant but has not offered to boycott it if its candidate wins the 28 December run-off.

Forget Western worries about negative growth: real GDP growth in Ghana is forecast to rise from 5.8% in 2009 to 6% in 2010, supported by investments in the nascent oil sector and lower inflation. Ghana is becoming an important oil producer and is the world's second largest producer of cocoa. If you eat Kit-Kats, you like Ghana's chocolate. The World Bank has warned, however, that the next government must lay the foundations for a 'South Korea-like' expansion. Ghana's large fiscal deficit of around 14.6% of GDP represents a challenge as the new government will find it difficult to borrow externally given current global conditions.

Over the next few years Ghana's new government will need to contain public expenditure, at least until oil revenues start to make an impact in 2010-11. But to be a path-breaker once more, Ghana needs peaceful, transparent elections on 28 December. The success of these elections can show that Kenya's or Zimbabwe's problematic elections in 2008, followed by drawn-out power-sharing negotiations, are the exception rather than the rule in Africa.