Is there a correlation between the high costs involved with running for political office in Ghana and the lack of youth and women represented in politics?
Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s new research report, launched in Accra in early March, in partnership with the Centre for Democratic Development (Ghana), explores the impact the 59% increase in average spend by candidates from 2012 to 2016 to secure their political parties’ nomination at the primaries stage and contest the parliamentary election has on women and young people.
Ghana’s current parliament has its highest ever percentage of female legislators, but with just 13% sitting in the 7th parliament, it is still a long way off representing the make-up of the population.
This imbalance is also reflected in the average age of MPs in parliament which, although dropping, is 48 years old. And it is not just in parliament where youth remain underrepresented; of the 253 successful and unsuccessful candidates interviewed for the WFD and CDD “Cost of Politics in Ghana” survey, only 12% were under the age of 35.
Financial barriers for young people
“The high cost of politics discourages the youth from actively taking part in the decision-making process, as well as vying for electoral positions” was the view of one survey respondent. In fact, 65% of respondents agreed that young people are excluded from the outset because they cannot mobilise resources for the high costs involved. Candidates under 30 on average spent GH₵203,000 (US$46,000) across the primary and parliamentary contests in 2016; 48% lower than the average.
That is not to say there aren’t exceptions; some youth do contest and win. In 2016, a 23 year old law student, Francisca Oteng Mensah made history by becoming Ghana’s youngest elected member of parliament. However, with her father an international businessman, she was less likely to be constrained by finances than others. Research in Nigeria supports this: it found that the handful of younger politicians who are in elected office tend to come from wealthy backgrounds.
Again, there are special cases. In Kenya’s 2017 election John Paul Mwirigi, a 23 year old student, campaigned on a shoestring budget, using classic door to door campaigning to win a parliamentary seat. These instances, where young candidates are able to win seats despite a lack of finance, merit further study if we are to better understand how they appeal to prospective voters without vast resources at their disposal.
Choosing not to run
Women candidates also spend less in their pursuit of elected office. On average their expenditures for the primaries were, 65% of the average, and during the election contest themselves, 73% of the average, according to the survey data. But this comparable underspend does not impact significantly on their chances of winning; 36 out of the 69 New Patriotic Party (NPP) and National Democratic Congress (NDC) women candidates who contested to become an MP won their seats in 2016. The issue, it seems, is not that women who choose to run are disproportionately impacted by the associated costs, but more that they chose not to run at all.
The challenge of fundraising, particular for the often highly contentious party primaries, appears to be more acute for women who often do not have the same access to social networks or personal finance to self-fund campaigns. Combined with prevailing patriarchal social attitudes and the fact that, as research from Kenya shows, women are disproportionately susceptible to violence during election campaigns, the decision not to stand is understandable.
85% of survey respondents agreed with the statement that the high costs of politics have made it impossible for the average person to seek political office in Ghana. A legislature that fails to adequately represent a cross-section of the population, can, in turn, lead to the alienation of groups in society who feel under-represented in parliament.
Improving the quality, and reducing the cost, of political party primaries can open the space to get more women and young people to think seriously about contesting for political office. Political parties, particularly the NPP and NDC who hold every seat in the legislature, are also in the best position to push forward short-term, interim changes argues Professor Gretchen Bauer of the University of Delaware, whose current research focuses on women’s political leadership in Ghana. “We know from decades of research that parties are the gatekeepers. Parties can recruit and support women; if they really wanted more women candidates, they could make that happen”.
Standing women or youth in “safe seats” to improve their representation is often discussed in Ghana and can be a way of getting greater representation into parliament in the short-term. But these sorts of changes will have to overcome prevailing social attitudes in a space that continues to be dominated by men. Only half of our survey respondents, 90% of whom mere male, felt that the financial costs of politics made it difficult for females to seek political office.
For longer term change, more substantive discussions about whether Ghana’s first-past-the-post electoral system is conducive to producing a diverse legislature is required. As is more research to better understand party primaries; a crucial entry point into politics that is too often ignored. In both settings – the primaries and parliamentary contests – finding ways of reducing the associated costs are key to opening the door to a broader representation of society to stand for public office in Ghana.