Nigeria’s ruling party may be in little doubt that President Goodluck Jonathan will win April elections, but it faces a tougher battle to maintain a strong parliamentary majority and wide control of local government.
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate has won every presidential race in Africa’s most populous nation since military rule ended in 1999. History looks set to repeat itself after Jonathan’s decisive victory in last month’s primaries.
But many analysts say the PDP, which has dominated Nigerian politics for more than a decade, could lose ground in parliamentary polls on April 2 and in state governorship polls on April 16, a week either side of the presidential vote, Reuters reports.
Opposition to Jonathan — the first head of state from the southern Niger Delta oil region — could manifest itself in the outcome of regional polls in the north, while the opposition is seen extending its control in south-western states around Lagos.
“The PDP is the only party with a truly national footprint so their candidate should win the presidential elections fairly easily, if opposition parties cannot agree a working coalition and joint presidential candidate,” said Kayode Akindele of Lagos-based consultancy Greengate Strategic Partners.
“The real competition could be at the sub-presidential level … At the state and national assembly levels the opposition parties can leverage off their respective regional strengths.”
Nigeria’s president needs both the support of state governors and parliament to push through reforms and govern with a strong mandate. A poor regional showing by the PDP could weaken Jonathan’s hand in the next administrative term.
Local rivalries have been at the root of past electoral violence in Nigeria and there has already been isolated unrest and controversy over candidates’ lists for the state votes.
Both the PDP and opposition parties have complained that some candidates on electoral commission lists for state elections are not the ones they chose. Some have already gone to court.
Rival supporters have clashed at campaign rallies in the Niger Delta. Sectarian violence in the central “Middle Belt”, partly over local political power, has killed hundreds since December and a governorship candidate in the remote northeast was gunned down in an attack by a radical Islamist sect.
The European Union, which will be sending observers to monitor the polls, on Thursday urged politicians to “avoid hate speech and violence during the electoral campaigns” and called on the authorities to bring those behind unrest to book.
“Nigeria is a leader on the continent, playing a significant role in promoting peace, and in regional economic growth and development,” said Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, deputy secretary general of the Commonwealth, which will also monitor the vote.
“It is crucial that violence must be avoided by all means,” she said after a visit to Nigeria this week.
The presidential race, at least, looks less controversial since Jonathan won the ruling PDP primaries by a clear margin.
His candidacy interrupts a PDP pact that power alternates between the mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south every two terms and there had been fears it could split the PDP or trigger a presidential race polarised by regional rivalries.
But in a political system based on patronage, incumbency gives Jonathan an unrivalled ability to raise funds and curry political favour, as well as benefits of office such as the use of presidential jets to help with national campaigning.
He kicked off a tour of the country’s six main geographic zones on Monday in the cassava- and yam-farming town of Lafia, east of the capital Abuja, and will later go from state to state in a bid to ensure a landslide victory.
The PDP currently controls more than two thirds of the 36 states, but its grip risks loosening.
Fierce contests are expected in the southwestern states of Oyo, where an unpopular PDP governor faces a strong opposition candidate — and Ogun, where there has already been controversy over who the PDP candidate should be.
In the Niger Delta, a bitter rivalry between the two main governorship candidates in Bayelsa state has triggered violence and in neighbouring Delta state, where there is also a strong opposition candidate to the PDP incumbent, former militants have in the past been used to intimidate voters.
In the north, there will likely be fierce contests in states including PDP-controlled Katsina, home to former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, Jonathan’s main presidential rival.
Ongoing sectarian violence between Muslim and Christian mobs in Plateau state in the “Middle Belt” and a campaign of killings by Islamist sect Boko Haram in Maiduguri, in the northeastern state of Borno, are likely to complicate elections there.