As We Sprint towards the 2023 Polls (3)
Postscript by Waziri Adio
At five weeks to the landmark 2023 presidential poll, it is not too early to start thinking of and preparing for the morning after. The emerging consensus among pundits and keen political observers is that the result of the February 25th presidential election will show a keen contest among three or four candidates, making this election cycle the most competitive since 1999.
If things go as projected, this will be a major shift in and a toast to the health and maturity of our Fourth Republic. But the projected tightness of the race is a double-edged development, worth celebrating and risk-proofing at the same time. I will examine this duality today as I conclude my three-part countdown series on the 2023 polls.
First the exciting and commendable part.
Since 1999, Nigeria has effectively been a multi-party democracy only in name. The contest has largely been between two political parties, with the gaggle of other parties (sometimes numbering more than 80) merely making up the numbers. You can call them paper parties.
In the five election cycles between 2003 and 2019, the two leading parties combined cornered between 86.26% and 98.92% of the valid votes. In 2019 for example, the two dominant parties snapped a combined total of 96.82% of the votes, leaving the remaining 71 other parties that fielded presidential candidates to scramble for a measly 3.18% of the votes. The candidate that came third overall polled only 0.40% of the valid votes cast, and even that could have been because his party sounded almost like one of the dominant parties.
The highest proportion of the votes a third party has ever garnered in the presidential elections since 1999 is 7.45%. This record was set by Alhaji Atiku Abubakar in 2007 when he was the presidential flagbearer of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN). Some scholars like Thomas Carothers have a name for the divergence between multipartyism on paper and in reality. They call it feckless pluralism.
The projected competition in 2023 thus will make our electoral system truly more plural and will further expand options for voters. This is good for our electoral politics and for our democracy.
It is worth stating quickly that there is nothing wrong with having just two parties or with a multi-party democracy with two dominant parties. You can have real alternatives and good competition in a two-party system. In actual fact, most established democracies have two dominant parties that regularly alternate power.
The issue with our current two dominant parties is that they rarely offer voters much to choose from in terms of ideas or personalities, they are populated by the same criss-crossing politicians, and they run on the same philosophy of patronage politics. And most fundamental, they are too entrenched and too conceited to see the need to constantly read the room, reinvent themselves or embrace reform. It is thus easy to see them as two damaged peas in the same rotten pod.
The possibility of a third force or the viability of candidates running on previously obscure or relatively new parties is thus a needed wake-up call for the two leading parties and a necessary shock to the system. I suspect that no matter how this election goes, we will still have two dominant parties, even if those parties are not the current ones. I say this because I believe that the experiment started by General Ibrahim Babangida (when he forced two parties on the country during the aborted Third Republic) has become a major part of our political culture.
Based on the dynamics of the coming elections, my considered view is that the era when political parties take the voters for granted and without consequences is coming to a necessary end. Even if either of the two parties wins the elections, I want to believe they have seen the bold writing on the wall.
This thus will be a major win. And should be seen as another major marker of progress in the Fourth Republic, alongside other key milestones which include: holding out for more than two decades, featuring more than two consecutive elections in a republic and recording two term-barred presidents, three transitions and the defeat of at least a ruling party. The multiplication of options for the voters is also a potential incentive for better governance.
But every good thing has a potential downside.
The flip side of the expected keen contest is that the winner of the February 25th election may be elected by a minority of those who vote on that day. Between 1999 and 2019, the winning candidate secured between 53.96% and 69.60% of the valid votes. This time around, it is likely that the winner will secure between 30% and 40% of the valid votes.
This will be within the range of the percentage of votes scored by the losing candidates in the previous six elections (31.97% to 44.96%), save for 2007 when the candidate that came second got only 16.66% of the votes. (Of course, everyone—including the winner of the election—agreed that the 2007 poll belongs in the temple of infamy.)
Ordinarily, this likely turn of events should not be a cause for concern as we operate the first-past-the-post voting system. Apart from meeting the spread requirement of securing 25% of votes cast in 24 states and FCT, whoever scores the highest number of votes is the winner, even if the margin of victory is just one vote. In any case, rarely does most of the registered voters turn up on election day. (Average voter turnout over the previous six election cycles is 51%, a range of between 69% in 2003 and 35% in 2019).
But a major shift may happen this time around. For the first time in this republic, we are likely to see a situation where the elected president may not be the preferred candidate of the majority of those who vote on election day. This will be on account of good showing by the other candidates who are likely to split the votes of the majority of voters.
This scenario takes us back to 1979, when we held our first presidential election. That election remains our most competitive multiparty election till date. The five parties polled as follows in the presidential election held on 11 August 1979: National Party of Nigeria (NPN), 33.77%; Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), 29.18%; Nigerian People’s Party (NPP), 16.75%; People’s Redemption Party (PRP), 10.28%; and the Great Nigeria People’s Party (GNPP), 10.01%.
Though UPN unsuccessfully went to court to challenge the election on account of the spread principle (the famous 12 2/3 saga), NPN’s Alhaji Shehu Shagari became the president even when 66.23% of the voters didn’t vote for him. The game is the game.
Why should a repeat of this possibility raise any eyebrow? My simple answer will be: because the contexts are different. The political climate in Nigeria today is more heated and more fragile than it was 44 years ago. The lines of division are sharper now, certain factors that didn’t register much on the political/electoral scales are now more salient, and our country is facing its most security challenges in decades.
Based on the way the competition is set up in 2023, the divided majority of voters may include key ethnic, regional, religious, class and demographic groups that are hurting or feel alienated already. The outcome of the election may deepen their sense of hurt and alienation in many and may negatively impact national unity and security, among others.
While it may be too late in the day to prevent this from happening, it is not too early to start preparing for that possibility.
Interestingly, 1979 offers some insight in practical and reasonable politics. NPN had a different challenge back then. It didn’t have the parliamentary majority needed to get the ministers approved and key legislations passed. For example, NPN had only 36 or 38% of the 95 senate seats while UPN, NPP, GNPP and PRP had 28, 16, eight and seven seats respectively. NPN formed an accord with NPP and ceded to NPP some ministerial positions, the Deputy Senate President position (Senator John Wash Pam), and the Speaker of the House of Representatives (Chief Edwin Ume-Ezeoke) even when NPP had only 78 of 449 House members.
If the winner of the 2023 elections gets elected by a minority of voters as I have sketched out here, he may or may not need to strike such a political bargain. But he will definitely need to actively reach out to and assure the hurting and alienated majority that reject him at the poll. His most important job will be national healing, accommodation and reconciliation. Next in scale will be managing expectations and preparing the country for the pains of necessary adjustments.
(The series is hereby concluded.)