Jonathan Eze interacts with the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) for Akwa Ibom State, Mike Igini on concerns over the multiplicity of political parties ahead and its pitfalls.

Considering the provisions of the law, is merger possible among political parties?

Ordinarily, it is the task of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to promote the electoral participation in the political process.

This is in keeping with the parameters for judging the norms of credible and acceptable elections which are; undeterred participation of stakeholders, free and unfettered competition between political groups and the legitimacy of the outcome of elections.  It is also the mandate of INEC to point out the pitfalls of some democratic practices, so that election stakeholders would be well aware of the consequences individual and group decision-making on the overall political arena and political process, especially as it pertains to elections which is our primary concern and as they affect the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria which is our overarching raison d’etre as a commission.

For this reason, one must point out that although it is best for the policy options open to voters to be diverse, most voters often do not have the analytical sophistication to sieve through the differences of so many political groups, this can make decision-making at the ballot very tedious if the political parties vying for position are too many and where many have not clearly articulated their visions and policy missions in the media that are easy for voters to understand. In this respect, the fears and concerns you have expressed may be valid. This is not only an anecdotal concern but as a matter of scientific fact. The fields of political science and mathematics concerns with voting outcomes under plural and multi-party election outcomes have expressed similar positions with respect to possible effects of too many contestants on the democratic ballot.

Those who are familiar with some political science theories and hypothesis such as the Duverger’s hypothesis or the Duverger’s equilibra, the Condocert hypothesis, the Nath-Bayes hypothesis, the Condocert winner or Condocert loser hypothesis, Borda’s theory, Arrow’s Theorem, amongst others have come to the understanding that using the game theory mathematical variables, with increasing number of contestants in a ballot, the resulting outcome of elections tends to favour the aggregation of votes towards the two leading parties. Duverger’s comparative survey of party systems investigated the sources of dualism, or the concentration of political party activity in two main parties. It contends that national factors explain a great deal, but two-party systems are invariably associated with a particular type of institutional arrangement: the single-member district, plurality electoral system. Hence it suggests that ‘Dualist countries use the simple-majority vote and simple-majority vote countries are dualist’.

Simply explained, especially in the case of the American-style Presidential elections that we run, what Duverger’s law which is a hypothesis first propounded by the Frenchman Maurice Duverger in the early 1950s and made popular by Gary Cox in an influential 1997 book, ‘Making Votes Count’,  suggests that,  voters knowing that only the top two parties are real contenders, often aggregate their votes around such parties deciding not to ‘waste’ their one and only vote on supporting an ‘also-ran party’ that is going to come in at a third, fourth or lower place. Hence this decision-making pressure to make a difference pushes voters instead to back the top two that they may not really like and leave the rest to wither. Although, some scientists have countered the validity of the law by using countries such as Canada which tended to disperse votes hence forcing coalitions as a negation of the law, however, it remains a possibility in our well over 68 parties’ context given the close contextual arrangements of the Nigerian system to the American voting system. I strongly advise against too much multiplicity of parties and the pitfalls thereof especially where the system has choked off the oxygen for other parties to flourish at the local government levels from where they could have built statewide, zonal or national support gradually due to absence of real elections in the 774 LGAs in Nigeria.

What are the logistics and balloting concerns where over 68 political parties are likely to be on a ballot paper?

With many political parties, there are benefits and costs. The benefits are that more parties offer more choices, political parties mobilise voters around a common set of interests or ideologies. So more parties do not only help to satisfy the constitutional right of section 40 regarding freedom of association and participation in political activities, it also help more voters to find political parties that closely match their beliefs and aspirations.

On the other hand, the cost of too many political parties with different logos and colours presents some drawbacks and practical pitfalls for voters especially where many of the voters across Nigeria are largely rural voters where there is no consistency of televised messaging.

For instance, how many of my people in Kokori in Delta State or Akwa lbomites can identify these numerous party logos? Many voters are unable to differentiate parties with similar or close names or logos even among the elites resulting in wrong thumb-printing and invalid votes when they have to search through a ballot paper with 68 names and more.  Too many political parties also fragment capable candidates both for the new parties and the older parties from where some people are likely to join the new parties. It will also fragments the votes of existing and new parties because there will be a situation where several political parties will be promoting similar policies, ideologies and agenda. Excessive fragmentation has drawbacks because as parties subdivide, the country becomes harder to govern, polarisation along ethnic, religious and other fault-lines increases as fringe parties harden along such agenda to gain the support of some large voting bloc, even when such agenda may be counterproductive to national cohesion. Where bigger parties are willing and responsive to public opinion to embark on reform and throw up new set of actors with new ideas and values in tandem with prevailing public desires and expectations, they may get things done better than a coalition of smaller parties, where discipline may be a tougher challenge, often because it may include strange bedfellows as we see in Nigeria. Instead of increasing real choices, multiplying parties would make room for politicians to hide the fact that what they are actually doing is using the parties as vehicles to gain patronage rather than meeting the policy needs of voters. Except we have regional autonomy of federating units where the diversity of parties create diversities that can meet specific regional needs and therefore reduce the central fissional tendencies, the multiplicity of parties will only increase the fight for the jackpot at the center where political relevance is most important to gain ground locally. Therefore, peripherally, if we allow more governance devolution, multiple parties can have benefits, but where devolution is asphyxiated, all the political struggle will end up at the center with the pitfalls I have highlighted as we approach 2019 election.

What solutions are available against the background of these concerns?

A number of benchmarks from lessons learned have been used to suggest solutions, they include the fact that to exist in line with section 40 is one thing but to be on the ballot for national election requires another threshold, the number of LGAs won and controlled by a party to qualify to be on legislative election would have been best but unfortunately, there are no real LGA elections in Nigeria at the moment, use of political mechanisms that compel the formation of coalitions by political parties, the overarching use of federalist mechanisms to devolve governance to peripheral tiers of government so as to minimise the central contest for power,  the use of legislative voting systems that increases participation such as the proportional representation and political parties threshold of overall votes  received during national elections in the legislatures, the whole point being to increase political participation without increasing the dystopia of the polity.