In Ghana Tight race as country holds key polls

An exporter of gold, cocoa and oil, Ghana was once hailed as a regional growth model but has now taken on too much debt.

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Officials of the opposition New Patriotic Party record results posted by party agents at its collection centre in Accra, on December 8, 2016 play

Officials of the opposition New Patriotic Party record results posted by party agents at its collection centre in Accra, on December 8, 2016

(AFP)
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Ghanaians cast their ballots on Wednesday in neck and neck presidential and parliamentary polls held at a time of economic woes and corruption scandals that have eroded President John Mahama's lustre.

Mahama's main rival is veteran politician and former foreign minister Nana Akufo-Addo. The winner will serve a four-year term in a formerly booming country that has seen its economy sputter, currency deteriorate and inflation soar.

There are some 15 million registered voters. Polling starts at 0700 GMT and closes at 1700 GMT across the West African country.

An exporter of gold, cocoa and oil, Ghana was once hailed as a regional growth model but has now taken on too much debt.

There are seven candidates battling for the top job and if the smaller parties perform well and deny either men a majority, a presidential run-off will be held later in December.

Mahama, 58, is running for a second term, with Akufo-Addo, 72, making his third -- and likely last -- bid for the highest office.

Leaving nothing to chance on the last day of campaigning Monday, Mahama held three rallies in the major swing regions of Brong-Ahafo, Ashanti and Greater Accra.

Mahama's final rally was full of supporters wearing white -- a sign of victory -- banging cowbells, dancing and posing for selfies.

"We're celebrating already," said Alhaji Guntula, a 45-year-old businessman with his face painted white told AFP. "He's winning hands down."

A socio-economic factfile on Ghana as it heads to the polls play

A socio-economic factfile on Ghana as it heads to the polls

(AFP)

Mahama has announced several infrastructure projects during the campaign.

In contrast, Akufo-Addo has hammered on Ghana's poor economic growth, the slowest rate in two decades at 3.3 percent in 2016 according to the International Monetary Fund, and has outlined detailed plans to get the economy back on track.

He has lambasted Mahama's ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) government over a series of corruption scandals in which scores of judges have been implicated. Critics say he squandered the country's commodity wealth and turned a blind eye to graft within his inner circle.

During his tenure, the Bank of Ghana controversially bought half a million dollars worth of gold Swiss watches for some of its staff.

The leader of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) has also alleged that the ruling party is fomenting violence, a claim Mahama denies.

Tight race

But tension is rising ahead of the high stakes election.

Ghana police said a NPP supporter was beaten to death, with six others left in critical condition in clashes between supporters of the two main parties after a rally in the north on Monday.

Elections in Ghana are famously close fought, with Mahama narrowly winning in 2012 with 50.7 percent.

But polls in Africa this year have been a mixed bag of surprising triumphs and sobering failures for democracy.

In Gambia, a dictator of 22 years conceded defeat, while in oil-rich Gabon the Bongo family continued its 50-year reign after a disputed election. But Ghana is still seen as an example of peace and stability in West Africa.

Pollsters are divided in a country whose democratic credentials have come under scrutiny after criticism of its electoral commission following the 2012 elections.

"The inauguration of Mahama's projects have attracted the swing voters," said pollster Ben Ephson, who has predicted Mahama will win 52 percent of the votes, mainly from working class constituencies.

Following the last elections in 2012, Akufo-Addo -- who polled 47.7 percent of the vote -- contested the results in Ghana's constitutional court, although he was ultimately unsuccessful.

Akufo-Addo, who said previously that he would accept the results even if he loses, added recently: "Those are hurdles we have to jump once we get there".

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