The Electoral Commission of Ghana has announced John Evans Atta Mills as the winner of the 2008 presidential election. Atta Mills represents the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) and he narrowly won, polling 4,521,032 representing 50.23 per cent of the total votes cast. He defeated the ruling party’s Nana Akufo-Addo who took 4,480,446 votes representing 49.77 per cent of the electorate. It is Atta Mills’s third tilt at the presidency and he had to withstand two rounds of voting and a special election in a single constituency to defeat his National Patriotic Party (NPP) rival by 40,000 votes out of more than nine million ballots.
Atta Mills will replace long-term president John Kufuor who steps down tomorrow after defeating Atta Mills in the last two elections. Kufuor was one of Africa’s elder statesmen during his eight year reign. Kufuor served two terms as president and the constitution did not allow a third term. In his final state of the nation address, Kufuor said parliament should consider extending the term of Ghana's president to five years to give "reasonable room" for a newly elected leader to settle into the job. “For the president of a struggling, developing nation with weak institutions, perhaps in the case of Ghana a five-year term, renewable once, will create the needed space for making a better impact,” he said.
Atta Mills narrowly lost the first round vote in December against Akufo-Addo but the latter did not pass the 50 per cent threshold needed for outright victory. In the run-off election later that month Atta Mills came out ahead of his rival by a wafer-thin margin. The narrowness of the margin meant that there were claims of foul play from both sides. It took a ballot re-run in the remote rural constituency of Tain before the opposition candidate was finally declared the winner. In one hit, the NPP had lost the presidency as well as control of the parliament.
The 64 year old John Atta Mills was the protégé of former president Jerry Rawlings and served as vice-president to Rawlings between 1997 and January 2001. Rawlings anointed Atta Mills as his successor in 2001 but he lost that election to Kufuor. Atta Mills courted controversy by saying he would consult Rawlings (who initially came to power in a coup) if elected but he has recently distanced himself from his mentor. He described himself as a social democrat borrowing from Ghanaian independence leader Kwame Nkrumah's social welfare program. But he pitched a more inclusive and less polarising political platform than both Nkrumah and Rawlings.
Atta Mills will have little time to celebrate his election victory as he faces mounting government debts and wage demands. He will also need to heal the political divisions born of a bruising and suspicious campaign with its allegations of voter fraud. The losing NPP significantly raised public spending in the election run-up to fund expansionary measures to help the country cope with high oil import prices. The legacy to Atta Mills is an increased national debt and it is likely he will have to quickly introduce an austerity budget. But in reality there was very little difference between the two major parties’ policies and a consensus may be possible. And while the world economic downturn has hit Ghana hard, the country is considered a well-administered country by regional standards and a model for political and economic reform. The task ahead for Atta Mills is difficult but far from impossible, by African standards.