Most of the nations in Africa have flunked this test. Analysts and investors now have their eyes trained on Ghana, one of the continent's rare exceptions, whose 23 million people are expected to join the ranks of the world's stable democracies when they go to the polls Sunday to elect their next president.
Unlike its neighbors whose rulers came to power in coups and never ceded control, Ghana suffered back-to-back coups in the 1970s and 1980s but then took a turn. After ruling for 11 years, ex-strongman Jerry Rawlings organized elections. He won two terms, then surprised the world by ceding power when his party's candidate lost to rival John Kufuor in the 2000 vote.
It's now President John Kufuor's turn to do so after two terms in office and analysts expect he will abide by term limits and step aside without a fuss, marking the second successful handover, a milestone not just for the country but also for Africa as whole.
Sunday's election pits the ruling New Patriotic Party's Nana Akufo-Addo against seven opposition candidates. Akufo-Addo's main challenge comes from John Atta Mills, the candidate of Rawling's National Democratic Congress.
"Moving around the continent, you can come up with — maybe — a handful of nations that have pulled this off," says Africa expert Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. "That's why this election is so significant."
The nations that have met the litmus test are few and include Benin, which in 1991 was the first African nation to transfer power from a dictatorship to a democracy. Recent setbacks include Mauritania, which held its first democratic elections in over 20 years last year, only for those gains to to be reversed in a coup 1 1/2 years later.
Catastrophic failures include Kenya and Zimbabwe, both of whose leaders refused to relinquish control after recent elections, causing their countries to descend into spasms of violence.
In this humid, traffic-choked capital, voters are keenly aware of the responsibility they bear. "We have an image to protect," says Sylvia Annoh, spokeswoman for the country's electoral commission. "We are an example for Africa," she says, adding that not only was Ghana the first African country to declare independence in 1957, it is now poised to become a model for the region.
Voters are also acutely aware of the stakes. With an annual growth rate topping 6 percent, the country is one of the continent's few economic success stories. Over the past four years, foreign investment has grown over twenty-fold from around $100 million in 2004 to $2.6 billion this year, according to Rosa Whitaker, a former Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa who now advises the government.
"When people ask me why I am so confident this election will go smoothly, I say because people have something to lose," she says.
Even more so following the discovery last year of offshore oil reserves. The revenue from the discovery is expected to pump an extra $2 to $3 billion a year into the state purse, roughly a fifth of the country's annual budget — a huge windfall for the winner of Sunday's election.
With a record of stunning growth, it's no wonder that the New Patriotic Party is campaigning on the government's record. Akufo-Addo, a former minister in Kufuor's administration, has planted billboards throughout the capital bearing the slogan, "We are moving forward."
Yet many say there's little to show for all the statistics indicating success.
"If you think Ghana is doing so well, then hand me your British or American passport and I'll hand you mine," quips Kwesi Aning, an expert on politics who heads a department at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre.
Despite economic growth, the average Ghanaian earns just $3.80 a day and dies before their 60th birthday. Much of the country has no reliable electricity. The lack of latrines means that even in the seafacing capital, the poor are forced to relieve themselves on the white sand beach.
"When you have the nicest house in a poor neighborhood, is that really something to be proud of?" asks 55-year-old Paa Kwesi Nduom, the candidate for the Convention People's Party.
The standard of living gap has fueled the country's opposition, who argue that wealth has failed to trickle down. They accuse Kufuor's administration of corruption, pointing out that it was during his tenure that Ghana, like much of West Africa, became a key transit point for Europe-bound cocaine smuggled from Colombia.
"Are you aware that they now call us the 'Cocaine Coast' instead of the 'Gold Coast?'" says NDC deputy secretary general Elvis Ankrah.
Although Rawlings led three coups before winning his first election in 1992, he is seen as having taken the moral high ground by having handed over power. He remains deeply popular and has helped rally thousands of supporters behind Atta Mills, who has put up posters of himself standing next to a photoshop cutout of Barack Obama in an effort to emphasize that he stands for change.
The ruling party, which continues to get top marks from the international community, may well lose to the NDC on Sunday, or else in the runoff to be held if no candidate secures over 50 percent of the vote.
What this shows is that Ghana is yearning for more than just a technical definition of democracy, says Aning. To be sure, the country is expected to have its second successful handover of power — but is that really enough?
Everyone knows, he says, that in the country's impoverished interior, voters flock to political rallies in the hopes of getting a free T-shirt emblazoned with the candidate's face. It's not out of love for the candidate, says Aning, but because that T-shirt could well be the only piece of new clothing he or she will get this year.
"If people are so poor that a T-shirt, a bit of food and some music is enough to sway them to vote for one candidate, then can you really talk of democracy?" asks Aning.
"We can start talking about democracy when people have a good house, a good job and can relax and discuss the issues over a good malt whiskey — but we're at least a half century away from that."