By JOE PARKINSON for the Wall Street Journal.
TAMALE, Ghana—Four years ago, on the back of a growing economy and a slick U.S.-style political campaign, Ghanaians hailed their charismatic, newly-elected president “Obama Mahama.”
Now, with the economy in the doldrums and the country’s reputable election process facing mounting scrutiny, John Mahama is making a final push for re-election in a Wednesday poll being framed as a delicate moment for Africa’s most stable democracy.
“This election is critical. It will be close, but I don’t think Ghana is at risk of breaking into violence,” the 58-year-old Mr. Mahama said in an interview after a boisterous rally in this dust-caked northern city. “We’ve done the hard work restructuring the economy. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Mr. Mahama and opposition leader Nana Akufo-Addo, an urbane 72-year-old lawyer who has run twice for the presidency and lost, have traded barbs over claims of voter intimidation and questions over the independence of the country’s supposedly autonomous electoral commission.
The few credible opinion polls that have been published show Mr. Mahama’s New Democratic Congress, or NDC, narrowly ahead of Mr. Akufo-Addo’s NPP, but the margin is inconclusive, suggesting the losing party may challenge the result in court or on the street after final results are released on Friday.
Mr. Akufo-Addo has warned his supporters to be vigilant about possible vote fraud.
“We are worried about the integrity of the election. We have definite reservations about the neutrality of the police,” he said after a weekend rally in the capital Accra.
The commodity-rich West African nation, which has held six peaceful presidential elections since the end of military rule in 1992 that have been regarded as free and fair, has long been held as Africa’s beacon of democracy, but the atmosphere of unusually high tension has some voters worried.
The African Union on Monday issued a strongly worded warning of the risk of postelection clashes and urged political leaders to do more to dissuade supporters from resorting to violence. Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president who is heading the Commonwealth election-monitoring group, urged parties to solve disputes through the courts.
“Ghana is a bellwether and anchor for Africa’s democratic trends. The outcome of this poll will be closely watched—and could have an outsized regional impact,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at the Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
With Ghana’s poll expected to be close, a key figure will be Charlotte Osei, head of the electoral commission. Ms. Osei has pledged a series of new transparency initiatives but has been criticized by opposition supporters for her alleged closeness to the ruling party.
The backdrop to Ghana’s elections is a sense of economic and political malaise.
Though tens of thousands have gathered for festive rallies across the country, a recent poll showed more than 70% of Ghanaians felt the country was headed in the wrong direction.
Ghana was supposed to be a Western-backed model to counterbalance the fast growing economies of autocratically ruled Rwanda and Ethiopia. Weak growth and domestic inertia have stopped it playing that role.
The NPP argues the president squandered the country’s commodity wealth and presided over a surge in corruption, including the conspicuous wealth of his family members; a charge he denies.
At the NDC rally in Tamale, an impoverished government stronghold where Mr. Mahama has overseen the construction a new airport and roads, voters gathered in their thousands to show support, joining a raucous rally that included performances from pop stars and a parade of white stallions.
In his speech, Mr. Mahama argued that his investment in infrastructure was now being imitated by the U.S. president-elect and would herald a new boom for Ghana. “Donald Trump wants to do invest big in infrastructure across America—but we have already done it. We have already finished,” he said.
Yet even in some of the president’s strongholds, like the Accra slum of Mamobi, residents say the economy is woeful and are eager for a change.
Emmanuel Oppang, a 24-year-old shipping company worker, said the president’s party was mired in corruption and would try to rig the election to keep hold of the purse strings. On his way to the opposition’s Accra rally, he echoed concerns that the government would seek to rig the election.
“If they win we’re on the streets. We won’t accept it like last time,” he said, referring to the NPP’s legal challenge to the 2012 election result was thrown out by the Supreme Court, which said there were irregularities but not enough to materially impact the result.
The stakes of the election are especially high for Mr. Akkufo-Ado.
After eight years out of power his NPP movement is struggling for financing and riven by factionalism that could burst into the open if he failed to dislodge the NDC again, party officials say.
In an interview at his Accra residence after the Sunday rally, the British educated Mr. Akkufo-Ado said Wednesday’s election marked a “dangerous time” for Ghana.
“We have been on a downward slide. The consequences of the election on Wednesday are really, really serious for the future of our country.”