There are symptoms of an election all over Accra. From the giant billboards, to the flags of various political parties extending from trees like prosthetic branches, to the general angst in the air as every news program on the radio, internet and television offers updates on the road to Ghana’s December 7 general elections. And it’s not just Accra; from the largest regional capital to the smallest village, the tinge of expectation is as clear as day. Ghanaians are set to utilise their democracy, freedom and liberty to shape and influence the decisions that will govern our lives over the next four years. The stakes are high, as is the expenditure bill, and no other group is more aware of this fact than the very ones putting forth candidates for Ghana’s next cycle of leaders: political parties.
To effectively conduct the impending elections, the government of Ghana has approved a budget of GH₵1.2 billion (approximately US$ 300,000) for the Electoral Commission, the entity responsible for all public elections in Ghana. With taxpayers and donors bearing the majority of the cost, there has been some query about whether Ghana needs to spend $40-$50 per person for logistics, security, voter education and other elements of the upcoming election. Perhaps the kicker is the fact that this colossal and unprecedented amount is just for activities led by the Electoral Commission; it does not take into account costs borne by political parties, the other huge stakeholders in the enterprise of organizing a general election. These like-minded individuals united by a common ideology and fervent drive to guide the nation according to their principles must bear their own financial burden. Who then is paying for the posters, billboards, advertisement spaces, radio, television and YouTube commercials that entered the fray as 2016 rolled in?
Political Party Fundraising
As political parties do not exist to make financial profit, they obtain their funding from donations, the sale of paraphernalia and the pockets of their various members. According to Idea International’s Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns 2003 report, political party funding is largely unregulated in Africa with most legislation governing the funding of political activities being unenforced. This is a disturbing revelation, given the fact that corruption is rife in these parts. In Ghana, the IEA-WTA Advisory Committee recommended that the state bear the cost of funding political activities as is done in countries like Germany and Sweden. This suggestion germinates from the idea that political stability and the accompanying peace are privileges enjoyed by all; hence, the citizenry should pay to maintain it by investing tax money in the coffers of political parties. The Committee also suggests that corruption related to political party funding will be curtailed since there will be a cap on how much money each party receives, assuring the citizenry that independent entities will not exchange money for political favour.
Conversely, there is the question of fiscal responsibility from political parties. Is there any guarantee that the proposed public financing of political parties would lead to better governance? Problems with enforcing accountability and disclosure laws could undermine the basic idea of public financing of political parties, which is to curb corruption. However, political party leaders like Parliament House Majority Leader Alban Bagbin and Minority Leader Osei Kyei-Mensah Bonsu have recently reiterated the call for government to pass the bill that will see 2% of Value Added Tax devoted to all political parties, irrespective of size.
Crowdfunding & Social Media: Tools for Political Campaigns?
This year, more political parties are interacting with Ghanaians online and using platforms like Facebook and Twitter to come up with novel ways of making their case. As the leader of the Progressive People’s Party (PPP), popular political figure Dr. Paa Kwesi Ndoum has made strides in building his social capital online with over 260,000 followers on Facebook and almost 50,000 Twitter followers. The ruling party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), is also using social media to highlight the results they have achieved in government with their #TransformingGhana campaign. But social media clout doesn’t pay for political campaigns – or does it?
As it stands, all 24 registered political parties, including front-runners the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP), are responsible for their own capital. This year, the NPP has taken an unconventional, and some would say innovative, route in funding its campaign for the 2016 general elections. With as little as GH₵1, anyone anywhere in the world can help flag bearer Nana Akuffo Addo finance his dream to become Ghana’s next president. The party’s “Donate For Change” project takes advantage of the internet to solicit small contributions from the 8 million Ghanaians online. This inventive application of technology expands the options for contributing to the campaign from traditional physical payments to electronic donations via simple text message subscriptions, an airtime recharge card which applies the monetary value of the card towards the campaign, mobile money payments and a cross platform mobile application for secure credit card payments.
The strategy being employed by the NPP is crowd funding and refers to bankrolling a project through small contributions from many different people who learn of the project and its potential benefits through social media. Crowd funding has been very successful in financing numerous art and development projects around the world. Recently, it was used by American actress Issa Rae to get 30,000 people to raise over $400,000 for the family of Alton Sterling, a black man murdered by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in just a matter of days, leading to a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are popular destinations for individuals and businesses who have dreams and ideas, but lack the funding to realise them.
Despite the potential to reach thousands with relatively little cost-wise, there is little evidence on whether crowd funding is being applied on a large scale in Africa’s political and governance spheres. It is also not clear whether the NPP are pioneers of this method of campaign funding in the West Africa region, much more the continent. For one thing, stakeholders like the Electoral Commission, political parties and the police require training on social media in order to tap into the digital sphere and benefit from the use of social media tools.
Crowdfunding: Looking Ahead
In other parts of the world, the potential and feasibility of diversifying political campaign funding through crowd funding is already clear. In 2008, then-US Senator Barrack Obama amassed funding from donations across the country, fueling his campaign “with donations of $5, $10, $20, whatever you can afford”. He became the first candidate to reject public funding and rely on his grassroots movement. The internet, mobile connectivity and the growing numbers of Africans online suggests crowd funding could become a great opportunity for political parties to fill up their coffers while garnering commitment from their adherents.
The internet, mobile connectivity and the growing numbers of Africans online suggest crowd funding could become a great opportunity for political parties to fill up their coffers with a much needed injection of funding. Crowd funding could also help a political party estimate the number and category of people who are likely to vote for them based on their participation or interest in contributing to crowd funding campaigns. Elections are a game of margins so any edge is worth exploring. For example, the outcome of Ghana’s 2008 general elections was marginally decided by just one constituency, Tain in the Brong Ahafo region, due to problems with distributing ballots for the run-off election on January 2, 2009.
There is no clear indication as to the success of the NPP’s Donate for Change campaign and it won’t be until after the upcoming general elections that a critical analysis on the impact of crowd funding for election campaigns can be done. However, any non-traditional avenue for funding would likely be welcome in the country’s political party landscape. While much is to be gained through crowdfunding online, the losses are more minimal. By using social media, a political party can take advantage of the abounding space the internet provides to publicize their agenda; after all, there are only so many walls in Accra upon which posters from all 24 political parties can be plastered.