Ghanaian president John Evans Atta Mills, who led the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC), died this week after a long struggle with throat cancer. Ghana is one of the few countries in West Africa that is a democracy; and not only is it a democracy, but in addition it has political parties that follow internal rules and hold primaries to select candidates to a much greater extent than those in, say, Senegal. This, despite the fact that Senegal, unlike Ghana, has a longer history of voting and party politics under colonialism, thirteen more years of experience with party politics after independence, and no history of military rule.
Of course, analysts of Ghana and its political success story are now asking: what will the death of Atta Mills mean for the stability of Ghana’s party system? Will his death create dynamics that change Ghana’s reputation for strong political parties that do not easily fragment?
Most Ghana experts appearing in the international media seem to think not. For instance, members of Ghana’s Center for Democratic Development have predicted that Mills’ death will encourage the NDC party to pull together and overcome the internal struggles that the party experienced before Atta Mills became the party’s official candidate for the December 2012 presidential election.
But in comparative perspective, the death of African president-party leaders usually creates barriers to party cohesion. If parties in this situation retain their cohesion, it is not because of, but in spite of the confusion and strife generated within the political system after the president’s passing. After the death of Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa in 2008, the ruling party–the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD)–was required to hold a by-election for Mwanawasa’s successor. As Nic Cheeseman notes in African Affairs, “Mwanawasa’s death was followed by a mixture of national mourning, factional realignment, and political uncertainty that was only partially resolved by the narrow victory of the ruling MMD.” The MMD leadership ended up designating a candidate around which they agreed to coordinate, but only with great difficulty.
In Gabon, after President Omar Bongo Ondimba passed away in 2009, his son Ali was already the Vice President of the ruling Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG). Ali Bongo’s succession as party leader was technically blocked at the time; Ali was part of a faction of “renovators” within the PDG that, despite Ali’s connections to the youth movement and key ministers who were members of the party, could not attain the party presidency behind the closed doors of the PDG committee of around twenty people, charged with finding the party’s successor “by consensus.” However, the PDG old guard, who had supported Ali’s father for decades, supported Ali in the succession crisis, and the PDG publicly announced Ali as its candidate. This was not without major political fallout within the ruling party, which won the election through reliance on electoral fraud. Ali’s clash for inheriting the leadership of the PDG with his close friend (and his father’s “spiritual guide”), André Mba Obame, led the latter to leave the PDG and create his own political party after running against Ali. Obame’s party was short-lived; it dissolved in 2011. Other PDG leaders, from the same Fang ethnicity as Obame, quit the PDG after the internal “consensus” was achieved. One renovator who left the party publicly announced that Ali had come in fourth place for the presidential candidacy within the PDG, but democratic rules were so lacking that he still won the position.
In Zambia and Gabon, party cohesion was precarious in the wake of the president’s death, but ruling party personnel relied upon different tools to determine the successor. It appears that Zambia’s MMD relied to a greater extent upon formal, internal party elections than Gabon’s PDG. This is unsurprising, since Zambia is closer to qualifying as a democracy than Gabon, where political power had not changed hands for over 40 years before Ali Bongo. This comparison also lends itself to a hypothesis: that in the context of presidential death, the more a political party relies on democratic internal rules to select candidates, the more cohesive the party will be, and the fewer defections it will experience in moments of crisis. If this is correct, then Ghana in 2012 may indeed experience a rally-around-the-NDC effect after Mills’ death, because it holds democratic primaries. The logic would then be that Mills’ death will create new opportunities within the NDC that will lure the Rawlings family back into party ranks. And NDC members’ desire to pull together in a moment of tragedy will change the Rawlings’ initial decision to leave the NDC to run against its candidate in the presidential election.
However, even if this is the case, it is perhaps too optimistic to imply that party cohesion will be easy to attain. Ensuring the cohesion of the NDC, and preventing the Rawlings’ launch of their new party, will be hard work. For even when ruling party leaders are alive and oversee a succession within their organization, this at best creates rifts within the party. Abdou Diouf’s designation of Ousmane Tanor Dieng as the new Socialist Party leader in Senegal set the stage for several dramatic exits (namely, those of Djibo Kâ and Moustapha Niasse, who both founded parliamentary parties that are still important today), and (as Cheeseman notes) Daniel Arap Moi’s designation of Uhuru Kenyatta as successor within the Kenya African National Union in 2002 was later followed by defections from KANU personalities like Raila Odinga, whose Rainbow movement was the driving force behind the Liberal Democratic Party, and who later formed the Orange Democratic Movement that competed in the 2007 presidential elections.
Moreover, as one of my Ghanaian friends and colleagues has pointed out, the NDC’s cohesion will depend on whether party members decide to retain the country’s new president, John Mahama, as the NDC presidential candidate, or instead opt to hold another primary within the party to select the replacement for Mills in the 2012 race. However, it is hard to tell which scenario would create more potential for party fragmentation. If the party sticks with Mahama without calling a primary, parts of the NDC constituency that prefer another candidate–whether Rawlings or someone else–will be frustrated; but if the party calls a primary, the losers of this procedure will also feel this way. According to existing political science theory (see, for instance, Professor Alejandro Poiré’s Harvard dissertation on Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party), we would expect more party cohesion to result from a new primary, since following the formal election rules already established within the NDC would create more legitimacy for the selected candidate. Perhaps Mahama would win anyway: Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, cited Mahama’s prospects, remarking that “[he] is young, has a lot of energy, and is very good with the media,” all traits that could prove important to NDC members when choosing a candidate.
The Ghana Elections 2012 blog makes an important point related to prospects for NDC cohesion: Ghana’s prior history of military rule resurfaces in today’s multiparty politics in new forms, currently through the wife of the former flight lieutenant/coup leader/president, Jerry Rawlings. When I was in Ghana prior to the past presidential election season, there were discussions within the NDC about whether Rawlings should play a major role in Atta Mills’ 2008 campaign for the presidency, given the fashion in which he initially took power and his subsequent methods of governing Ghana. Ultimately, Rawlings was closely involved in the workings of the Mills campaign, but was less involved during the Mills presidency that followed, mainly because Mills sought to distance Rawlings’ legacy from the NDC party label (for this important distinction, I thank George Ofosu of the Ghana Elections blog). But in this moment of national crisis following Mills’ death, it will be interesting to see whether Rawlings’ strategy changes and his willingness to remain linked to the NDC without enjoying the spotlight declines. Rawlings and his wife are already rumored to have reacted to Mills’ distancing strategy by creating their own, new political party.
If the rumors are true, these recent actions of the Rawlings family now generate opportunities for NDC defection. Sarah Brierly and George Ofosu, writers of the Ghana Elections blog, inform us that
The Rawlings family have displayed clear ambitions to regain a central position in the NDC with Nana Konadu (wife of ex-president Rawlings) competing against Mills in the NDC flag bearer elections last year….prior to the death of Mills [the Rawlings] have been [rumored to have been] in the process of establishing their own party with its inauguration date set for 15th August. Now it remains to be seen whether the NDC will make a final attempt at trying to re-establish an alliance with President Rawlings and his wife or take them on in the December election.
Ultimately, the choices that the Rawlings are now pondering (“Should I stay in the NDC, given the new opportunity to fight for the leadership of the party, or should I go, as I had been planning to do before Mills was out of the picture?”) seem much more like those that many Senegalese politicians weighed before founding yet more parties among the hundreds that now exist there. Former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck, for one, founded a party that the government refused to recognize after President Wade threw Seck out of the government and pursued him on corruption charges in the mid-2000s; Seck created the party just prior to the 2007 presidential elections, in which he took second. The broad-based support he was able to mobilize in a short period of time after the party’s founding helped him retain political currency that led to negotiations with Wade in 2009, and a fusion of Seck’s Rewmi party with Wade’s PDS. However, Seck’s departure from the PDS significantly reduced the ruling party ranks, and his re-entry into the PDS five years later created further internal conflicts in a party that was already plagued by personal battles for proximity to Wade.
Similar dynamics rippled through the PDS when Wade subsequently removed former Prime Minister Macky Sall in 2008. Sall, who is now President of Senegal, faced the same choices as his predecessor Seck, and ended up founding his own party in reaction to his fall from grace within the ruling party. The “should I stay or should I go” question has also been answered in the “I should go” fashion in Senegal by former barons of the Socialist Party, which ruled Senegal until Abdoulaye Wade came to power in 2000. Both before and after the PS lost in 2000, at least five or six barons chose to leave the mass party and found their own, despite the possible advantages of staying loyal to the PS, with internal structures that were already present and well-developed in all parts of the country, and with representatives already in national government institutions like the National Assembly.
The fact that leaving a major party like the NDC is even being pondered by major political figures in Ghana does not bode well for the idea that party cohesion will be by any means easy in the post-Mills context. In Senegal, party discipline is consistently less marked than in Ghana, and internal democracy within political parties is rare if not absent. Ghana going the route of Senegal in terms of individual political ambitions trumping politicians’ commitment to keeping major political parties cohesive is not likely to serve the country well in terms of developing an opposition that has hope of enforcing accountability between politicians and constituents.
These cross-country similarities are striking to me because Senegalese parties are not as internally structured as the two major parties in Ghana, which have relatively functional primaries to designate legislative and presidential candidates. The internal procedure that most major parties in Senegal follow is less formal, and depends much more on a single person’s will. When presidential nominations are due, there is little question as to who is in charge of the PDS or the PS and therefore there is little doubt as to who will run. When legislative candidates are in question, the party leader and perhaps a small oligarchy of party personnel have the ultimate say (even if, initially, constituencies designate their desired candidate).
In fact, given these major differences between the internal party procedures in Ghana and Senegal, and given that Ghana (unlike Senegal) has election rules that encourage two-party competition at the national level, I find it surprising that the Rawlings have chosen to pursue their ongoing political ambitions by creating their own party, rather than by continuing to battle for control of the NDC from the inside. It will certainly be interesting to see whether Atta Mills’ passing, and the succession process it fosters within the NDC, will push the Rawlings back into the party, or whether Ghana will start traveling the path of countries like Senegal, where party discipline is more difficult to ensure.
I thank George Ofosu for enlightening and helpful commentary and criticism of my initial reading of Ghanaian politics that motivated this posting. Please visit the Ghana Elections blog for his nuanced analysis of these recent events and their consequences.