Ghana set for close vote as rivals square off for third time

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Ghanaians voted Monday in an election seen as a close fight between President Nana Akufo-Addo and his longtime rival John Mahama, vying to lead the country long viewed a beacon of stability in a troubled region.

From the oceanside capital Accra to the northern city of Tamale, voters lined up at polling stations at the crack of dawn to pick a president among 12 candidates and members of parliament for 275 constituencies.

Crowds cheered and chanted "four more years!" as the incumbent of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) cast his vote in Kyebi, a town in the eastern region.

"I'm feeling fine, happy that the process is going well and peacefully," 76-year-old Akufo-Addo said.

A November survey by the University of Ghana put Akufo-Addo ahead with 51.7 percent of support, while Ghanaian pollster Ben Ephson estimated the incumbent would garner 52.6 percent.

His challenger Mahama, 62, of the National Democratic Congress party (NDC) was surrounded by his supporters as he voted in Bole, in the northern Savannah Region.

A few polling stations opened late and long queues were seen by AFP journalists in Accra, with voters waiting for hours in the glaring sun.

But by midday, election observers had signalled no major incidents across the 38,000 polling stations, which will remain open until 1700 GMT.

"It’s too early to make an assessment, but I understand there have been a few hitches," Mahama said after casting his vote.

"I hope that there will be no incidents and I hope that voting will go smoothly," he added.

The duo have faced each other at the ballot box twice before. Mahama was president for four years until 2016, when his rival succeeded him.

Key issues in this year's vote include unemployment, infrastructure, education and health.

- Graft allegations -

Ghana has made giant strides over the past two decades, becoming the world's second-largest cocoa-producing country, but many still live in extreme poverty with scarce access to clean water or electricity.

Growth in the nation of 30 million people, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, is expected to fall this year to 0.9 percent -- its lowest in three decades -- according to the International Monetary Fund.

At the Bawalshie primary school in a wealthy neighbourhood of Accra, 47-year-old businessman Ben Nikoi said he was voting for "a change of government," adding: "I want more improvements."

But Vida Agyakumaa, 44, who works at the forestry commission, said she was backing the incumbent.

"We don't want change. We need (President) Nana because of free education. We want him to win."

Akufo-Addo has been given high marks for his handling of the pandemic and his record on free education and improving access to electricity.

But he has disappointed some with his performance on tackling graft -- the key issue on which he was elected four years ago.

However Mahama has found it hard to highlight this, as he himself left office under a cloud of corruption allegations.

Mahama has also been criticised for poor economic decisions and racking up unsustainable debts -- a key issue that will severely affect growth and limit the next government's spending.

But the skilled communicator has brushed aside the criticism, making ambitious promises to build infrastructure, create jobs and modernise the country.

In a bold move, Mahama picked former education minister Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang as his running mate -- the first woman on the ticket of a major party.

- Symbolic peace pact -

Ghana's relative stability contrasts with that of other countries in the region, with deadly unrest this year in Guinea and Ivory Coast.

"We don’t go to places where democracy is fake, where it's a theatre," EU's chief observer Javier Nart told AFP at a polling station in James Town, Accra.

In Ghana, "it's not the Kalashnikov that commands, it is the ballot box," he said.

"Of course there are hotspots here and there. We’ll see but the most important is that today everything goes normally, the counting is correct, and the outcome is known as soon as possible."

The West African nation has ensured peaceful transfers of power on seven occasions since it returned to democracy nearly 30 years ago.

The two major parties have consistently accepted electoral outcomes and pursued any grievances through the courts.

To ensure its continued tradition of peaceful polls, Akufo-Addo and Mahama on Friday signed a symbolic peace pact.

The coronavirus pandemic has posed a challenge in this year's election, with 10,000 more polling stations than usual set up for the nation's 17 million registered voters.

Hand sanitisers are available for voters, who are undergoing temperature checks.

The head of the Commonwealth Observer Group, Emmanuel Ugirashebuja, said in statement that he was "very impressed with the precautions Ghana is taking to keep people safe as they cast their ballots".

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