The IEA presidential debates: 15 years of upholding electoral accountability

13 February 2015
SERIES Think tanks and elections 17 items

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Mrs. Jean Mensa, Executive Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). IEA has since 2000 organized Presidential Debates for flag bearers of parliamentary political parties in Ghana. It is part of a series posts on think tanks and elections around the world.]

The IEA: background

The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is Ghana’s first independent public policy think tank. It was founded in 1989 in Accra, Ghana’s capital, when the country was still under military rule and multi party democracy seemed a mere illusion. The IEA’s mission is to promote good governance, democracy and sustainable economic development in Ghana and West Africa. The IEA carries out its mandate through two centre’s, a Governance Centre and an Economics Centre. Both Centre’s are devoted to undertaking high quality research and advocacy to inform public policy.

Purpose of the IEA work on elections

As part of its commitment to deepen and consolidate multiparty democracy and promote issues-based elections, The Institute of Economic Affairs has since 2000 organized Presidential Debates for flag bearers of parliamentary political parties in Ghana. The IEA believes that “those who wish to govern must subject themselves to probing questions by the people, to ensure that they understand their concerns, and have the capacity to address them.” Presidential Debates provide a platform for the flag bearers to come together on single platform to dialogue and discuss their policies and programmes and answer questions from the electorate. This platform offered has to enabled the electorate make an informed choice on the most suitable candidate to govern. The Debates allow the electorate the opportunity to know what each candidate stands for and how they intend to govern the country if elected to the high office of the Presidency. In short the Presidential Debates have introduced an issues-driven approach to the Presidential Campaigns and moved the campaign away from personality attacks to an issues-based one.

An insight into the presidential debates promoted by the IEA

Ghana is the only West African country to have held four Presidential Debates back to back making it a historic feat and an attestation of democratic maturity for the country. The first ever-presidential debate in Ghana was organised in 2000 by The IEA. It was attended by all presidential aspirants except the candidate of the then ruling party, the National Democratic Congress. His absence cost him the election and his main opponent, Mr. J.A. Kufuor of the New Patriotic Party went on to win the election. The IEA organised a second Presidential Debate in 2004 for the presidential aspirants of the parliamentary parties. Sadly, the candidate for the then ruling party, J.A. Kufuor of the NPP, declined to participate at the last minute, although he had given an earlier commitment to participate in the event. As incumbent, he went on to win a tightly contested election.

In 2008, the IEA-Ghana introduced the Evening Encounters and Vice Presidential Debates on the political calendar. The Evening Encounters are different from the Presidential Debates in that while the Presidential Debates brings all the aspirants together a single platform, the Evening Encounters provide an independent platform to each of the aspirants. At the Evening Encounters, the presidential aspirants were given a unique platform to present their policies and programmes to representatives of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). After this, the CSO representatives were also given the opportunity to comment, quiz and question the aspirants on their presentations. The IEA for the first time organized a Vice Presidential Debate for the running mates of the presidential aspirants of the 2008 presidential elections. The introduction of the Vice Presidential Debate was also based on the view that the Vice President is one heartbeat away from the President and had to be assessed by the electorate. Additionally, The IEA organised two Presidential Debates, one in the capital, Accra and the other in the northern Ghana, Tamale. There was no incumbent President contesting the elections. All the presidential candidates of the parliamentary parties participated in the Debates.

The year 2012 was unique in the history of hosting Presidential Debates in Ghana because for the first time, a sitting President contesting the elections participated in the debates together with three other flag bearers. The culture of incumbents using the debate platform in opposition and bastardising it when they won power was broken.

The approach taken by IEA includes the following:

The Presidential Debates Committee

To prepare for the Debates, The IEA board establishes a Presidential Debates Committee (PDC) made up of eminent Ghanaians who have excelled in various sectors of life, i.e., academia, business, public life, etc. The PDC is usually chaired by a respected member of the clergy. The Committee is provided with a Terms of Reference which includes:

  • Assisting with the development of format and guidelines to govern the Debates
  • Reviewing, selecting and compiling questions received from various organisations for the Debates
  • Interviewing and selecting suitable Moderators for the Debates
  • Collaborating with political parties, opinion leaders and security agencies to ensure a successful debate
  • Working towards ensuring a peaceful and violence-free election

Criteria for Participation

The Debates are restricted to candidates of political parties with representation in Parliament. Candidates cannot provide substitutes to attend the Debates in their stead.

Selecting Moderators

Two moderators are selected to pose questions to the Candidates. To choose the Moderators, The IEA Secretariat in consultation with the PDC compiles a list of about fifteen distinguished personalities from academia and the media. The list is submitted to the political parties, with a ranking form for short-listing. The first two persons with the highest marks are then selected as Moderators. To assist the moderators in discharging their functions, guidelines are developed by the PDC. Notably, the Moderators are not to deviate from questions provided by the PDC but have the discretion to ask follow-up questions.

The Venue

The venues for the Debates are selected by the PDC in consultation with the various stakeholders. Generally, Presidential Debates have been held in Accra and Tamale. The choice of Accra provides an opportunity for policy makers, opinion leaders and development partners to be physically present at the Debate. Northern Ghana is also chosen to signal to the residents of the politically volatile metropolis that it is possible to have friendly competition in national elections.


The PDC collaborates with the national security apparatus in organizing the Debates. Security personnel are dispatched to the venue to ensure law and order. Security checks are conducted three hours before the start of the Debates and only invited guests are allowed access.

Media Collaboration

The IEA works with the state-owned radio and television stations to broadcast the Debates. All other stations pick their feed from the state-owned broadcasters.

The Questions

In developing the questions, The IEA seeks input from important stakeholder organizations, identifiable groups and individuals including professional bodies, civil society, opinion leaders, academia, grassroots organizations and the media.  The questions are grouped under the rubrics of the Economy, Human/Social Security and Governance.

Impact of the debates

As indicated earlier, Ghana is the only African country to have held four Presidential Debates back-to-back, making it a historic feat and a show of democratic maturity for the country. By all accounts, the Debates have been successful in lowering political temperature, reducing tension as well as contributing to peaceful elections in Ghana. At the end of the Presidential Debates, the Candidates hold hands and make a verbal pledge to uphold peace before, during and after the elections. The video clips of the peace pledge are used by the media houses and the National Commission for Civic Education, (the constitutional body in charge of civic education) to promote peace throughout the country. This gesture of cordiality and maturity sends a positive message to the electorate, particularly supporters at the grassroots that an election is not war a but are healthy contest of ideas.

The Debates have also promoted issues-based campaigning and discussion and have helped moved campaigns from one of personality attacks and insults to an issues-based election. Indeed, following each debate, the political landscape and media is dominated by a comparative analysis of the Candidates’ policy positions. The debates enable the electorate to ascertain what each Candidate stands for. This has enabled the electorate make an informed choice on Election Day.

The Debates and Evening Encounters have also served as accountability platforms in that whoever gets elected is held accountable for his or her policy positions.  In other words, the Debates have not only been campaign platforms. Leaders have gone ahead to implement policy proposals they articulated on the debate platform. For instance, Ghana’s constitution review process was a pledge made on the 2008 debate Platform. Again, the passage into of the IEA-sponsored   Presidential Transition Act was also a commitment articulated on the 2008 debate platform. The appointment of several women to decision making positions including the Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, the Deputy Inspector General of Police, the Commissioner for the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice and several other ministers and deputy ministers of the state is in fulfillment of the promise made at the IEA Debates by the candidate of the ruling party.


Gradually, Debates are becoming institutionalised on Ghana’s political calendar in the lead up to elections. The politics of insults is giving way to issues-based discourse. In spite of the successes so far, there are important lessons to be taken on board. The Debates which were conducted in English were translated by some of the radio stations into local languages for the benefit of the illiterate population. However, the translation was not done in all the local languages. Provision for simultaneous translation in all local languages is recommended.

Again, calls have been made for a review and assessment of the performance of the President against his promises at the Debates and Evening Encounters. It has been suggested that periodic assessment should be undertaken and publicised. This is being considered.