DEEPENING DEMOCRACY: Credible Elections and Political Parties

26/09/2010 11:43

Last week, at its retreat of National and Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) held in Calabar, INEC reiterated its commitment to abiding by the terms of the revised Constitution and Electoral Act. It added however that after drawing up the detailed action plan for the voter registration and elections, the timeline for implementation was too tight.

It was on that basis that INEC started engaging stakeholders with a view to exploring all legal avenues for extension of the time to enable the Commission to deliver on the aspirations of Nigerians for a credible voters’ register and free, fair and credible elections. They affirmed however that they remained committed to the May 29 2011 inauguration date.

Fifty out of the sixty-two registered political parties readily accepted the postponement of the elections from January to April next year. Of course their acceptance of the revised timeline is based on their own lack of preparedness to comply with the timelines of the calendar in the context of the new Electoral Act. Political parties are now required to have decentralised processes for the nomination of candidates for elections. The nomination processes for parties must not only be decentralised but also require actual voting by members. The era of the so-called “consensus candidate”, meaning, imposition by the godfather is ended.

Of course the most serious problem for the political parties us that the new law did not give them enough time for wheeling and dealing in candidate selection. My suspicion is that they are planning ways and means of subverting the new rules meant to enforce democratisation of candidate selection within parties. The future of credible elections in Nigeria relies not only on INEC but also in a sense, even more crucially on political parties accepting to play the democratic game based on agreed rules.

Political parties in Nigeria since 1978 have had a persistent tendency to factionalise and fractionalise. For too long, they have been instruments used for mafia style gangsterism by political entrepreneurs. The key political resources used in the battles for nomination within political parties are state power, money and violence. Godfathers decide on party nominations and campaign outcomes and when candidates try to steer an independent course, they use their favourite instruments to deal with them. The result is that they raise the level of electoral violence and make free and fair elections difficult.

We have sixty-two registered parties today and most of them are small and have little impact on the political process. They exist for one of two reasons – to collect grants from INEC or as fall back party for a godfather that might be dethroned from their current party, mostly, from the PDP.

The extension of time should be an opportunity to closely monitor political parties to ensure that they keep not just to the legal requirements for candidate nomination but also to general democratic norms. Nigerian citizens must strive towards transforming political parties into organisations that are owned, financed and controlled by members rather than godfathers.

Indeed, the godfather syndrome makes it impossible for true accountability to be practiced in parties. The fact that one or two individuals bear the cost of running campaigns and funding of other party activities leads to a privatisation of both party and state machinery because government officials would naturally owe allegiance to the political godfather who “put” them in office rather than to the ordinary citizen.

One of the legacies of the militarisation of Nigerian society and its impact on the political process is the organisation of political parties around personalities, tribe or religion rather than issues. Issue based politics has virtually disappeared from our political landscape. Parties that are not in power have serious difficulties raising funds for their activities. The ruling party is rich because it has access to state funds through government contracts and other creative means of funding.

The new type of party we require must subscribe to the principle that all citizens can freely join and participate fully in all of its activities regardless of ethnic, religious, gender, class, social background or standing and disability. Above all, the practices of the party must conform to the principles of internal party democracy, especially in regard to the nomination of candidates for elections.