INEC is right to set limits: the fewer the parties, the better for democratic choice

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While it is good to have a liberal law that, at least on the surface, encourages popular participation, it is also important for all the relevant stakeholders, including those in the media, civil society and National Assembly to understand the full implications of having dozens of political parties on the ballot in an environment such as ours. Beyond the logistical nightmare of administering such elections without creating room for endless litigations that we have witnessed over the years, a largely illiterate electorate will find it difficult making informed choices in a situation where too many parties and candidates are on the ballot.

Although many of these political parties that represent no more than the personal interests of their promoters have indicated going to court, it is important that they be checkmated. What has become clear in Nigeria today is the increasing desperation for power not necessarily to advance public good but rather to target the enormous spoils of office that are attached to political positions at all levels of governance. It is this same reason that drives the establishment of political parties that have, for all practical purposes, become business ventures.

It is in light of the foregoing that we endorse the decision by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to deregister 74 political parties, based on Section 225A of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Nigeria, according to the INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, had 91 political parties before the 2019 general election with another one registered by court order after the election, making a total of 92 political parties. He added that the last alteration to the 1999 Constitution in 2018 specifically empowers INEC to deregister political parties on the following grounds: Breach of any of the requirements for registration as a political party; failure to win at least 25% of the votes cast in one state of the federation in a presidential election or 25% of the votes cast in one local government area in a governorship election and failure to win at least one ward in a chairmanship election, one seat in the National or State Assembly election or one seat in a councillorship election.

The right of people to form parties and have them registered does not reduce the obligation of INEC to regulate the criteria for retaining their registration.  Even if people have the right to form political parties, proliferation is counterproductive to our democracy. For one, these new parties (like the old ones) are not built around any ideology or interest group and from past experience, they are unlikely to exert any remarkable influence good enough to win elections. That then explains why the nation must recover its senses. 

While the parties have a right to exist, INEC has just exercised its obligation to regulate in line with extant rules. The commission has compelling reasons to do so. For years, INEC has been burdened with repeat elections that are needless and that trend has only multiplied as the number of political parties and candidates grew. Under what is termed “unlawful exclusion”, elections can be – and are often – nullified on several grounds, including a wrong spelling of names, even if such candidates were electoral no-hopers. In terms of logistics and cost to INEC, managing close to 100 parties is a nightmare.

For the sake of growing our democracy therefore, the fewer the parties, the better for democratic choice. It is for INEC to prescribe a new, more restrictive set of criteria for party registration. These will need to be written into a revised electoral law so that those deregistered after an election do not, on the eve of another, seek and secure fresh registrations.

As we have argued in the past, there is a fundamental reason why the best democracies gravitates around two major parties. Democratic choice even among the most enlightened electorate tends to be binary: either apples or oranges. But even under a multi-party arrangement, a maximum upper limit that is robust enough to accommodate all ideological options makes more sense. Core belief, national presence, spread of membership and basic infrastructure and not the whims of individuals should guide party registration.