On the PDP–APC Showdown By Waziri Adio
We are at least a year away. But we are there already. Believe it or not, this year, 2014, is the election year. To be sure, the ballot for presidential, legislative and most gubernatorial elections will not be cast until February 2015. But the election heat is already upon us, so pervasive, so intense, and so thick you can slice it with a knife. And it will only get worse, not better.
Hardly a day passes now without frontal and proxy confrontations between the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC), the leading opposition party. These confrontations come through accusations and counter-accusations, defections and counter-defections, threats and counter-threats, boasts and counter-boasts etc. The two parties are having a vicious go at each other, the like of which we have not seen in recent times. And there won’t be any let off. So, brace yourself.
Perhaps, this is inevitable. Since 1998/1999, we have never approached a general election in such a heightened state. With the possibility of a first-time defeat staring it rudely in the face, the ruling party is giving it its all, definitely not waiting to be steamrolled. And fancying itself to be within touching distance of history, the opposition is not willing to take prisoners either. It is this push-pull dynamics, the constant attempts to gain advantage over and undermine the other, that has blanketed the polity with a heat-wave that will possibly linger beyond February 2015.
Even if APC’s early promise is not immediately fulfilled, its dramatic entry has already changed the temper of the game. The possibility of alternation of power, without which a multi-party democracy is all but a sham, appears more realistic now with the emergence of a strong opposition. This has the potential of further deepening our democracy by expanding choice, increasing competition, and providing incentive for elected officials to perform. Also, the emergence of two strong parties across the religious and geographical divide, if well managed, could diminish the negative use to which religion and ethnicity are routinely put in our politics.
But this same dramatic arrival, combined with the equally dramatic response it has elicited, has also brought forward the election year. Everything is now political, and politics is now everything. Governance, sadly, has taken the back-seat. We have thus prematurely entered the lame-duck zone. Show-boating will be prioritised ahead of difficult but necessary reforms. And projects that will seduce the voters and swell the war chest will be favoured over the ones that will make real and lasting impact.
Worse could happen, unfortunately. The spirited contest between the two parties is already amplifying tension in an ordinarily brittle polity. Muds are freely thrown, fiery words freely exchanged, and violence appears only a spit-distance away. A recent discussion in the House of Representatives predictably degenerated into a row. When the passion eventually spills into the streets and other arenas where there are no rules and gavels, the situation could get uglier. It is hoped that the electoral umpire and the security agencies are ready for this and are prepared, in a non-partisan way, to force the actors to play by the rules.
While we brace ourselves for the next 12 months, it is important to back up a little. How did we get to this moment of intense competition? A time was when Nigeria could pass for a one-party state. Even with close to 50 registered parties, PDP controlled not only the presidency, but also more than two-thirds of the states, and near absolute majority in the National Assembly. Scholars of democracy have names for that dysfunctional state, ranging from multi-party democracy with a dominant party, feckless pluralism to pseudo-democracy.
At its glorious height, PDP controlled 28 out of the 36 states. That was almost 80 per cent of the states. Now, it is barely hanging onto only half of the states, with a slim majority in the Senate, and a seriously threatened standing in the House. And it could get worse. So, how do we explain PDP’s tumble from Mt. Olympus? An oft-repeated account puts it all down to the politics of 2011 and 2015. Even if that is true, the issues are much deeper, for the unraveling of PDP had been long in coming.
A big chunk of the puzzle issue lies in the origin. PDP was conceived as a big tent, creatively symbolised by the green-white-red umbrella, a party strong enough to withstand even the military. This outlook gave it strength, earning it the first slot for registration in 1998 and easy victory in the 1999 elections with 21 states (All Peoples Party won nine and Alliance for Democracy won six), and the presidency to boot. But its strength also became a weakness. The truth is that PDP has never been a party in the strictest sense. It is a rally, a collection of different tendencies, a mere but effective platform for winning elections.
The fact that it has had absolute monopoly of political power at the federal level and in most of the states for almost 15 years, with the untrammelled access to financial and coercive resources that goes with that, has obscured this birth defect. Rather than do the necessary work, the party leaders have been comfortable with their blind-spots and they routinely engage in pointless boast about staying in power for 60 years, a boast that its newly drafted chairman strangely resurrected over the weekend.
However, why they keep bragging of becoming the PRI of Nigeria (the Partido Revolucionario Institucional—Institutional Revolutionary Party—was in power for 71 years in Mexico), two forces have been studiously chipping away at PDP’s hegemony. The first is from within. PDP has always been a house divided against itself, as its different tendencies continuously and viciously struggle for dominance. At a point when the party had near absolute majority in the National Assembly, it became its own opposition, a major marker being when the two houses at different points threatened to impeach the president elected on the platform of the same party.
The second is from outside. On account of being in power since the beginning of the Fourth Republic, its lack of solid performance and the haughty manner in which it has conducted itself, the PDP has, in popular imagination, become synonymous with everything that is broken about our democracy. This may be mostly a perception problem, but the party had been thoroughly damaged in public estimation, so damaged that its presidential candidate in the last general election had to be smartly sold as someone different from, and better than, his dented party.
A combination of those two factors—internal division and external disapproval—meant it was only a matter of time for the party to be over. The truth of the matter is that PDP had struggled in the last three election cycles, never mind that it grew in strength. But the party had been able to hold it together partly because being an incumbent in a developing democracy confers undue advantage and partly because of the absence of a united, strong, national and viable alternative. With the coming together of the main opposition parties in APC, significantly of General Muhammadu Buhari (who has the most popular following among politicians today) and Senator Bola Tinubu (who has a solid political structure in six states), the field of play has changed.
No matter how calm they pretend to be, PDP apparatchiks are running scared, wildly thrashing about for an appropriate response. The ruling party is in a very strange place, a place it is not used to. And the opposition, smelling blood, is going for the kill. Does this mean the PDP era has come to an end, as that of PRI did in Mexico in 2000 (before a rebound in 2012)? Not necessarily. PDP is still the incumbent and it will throw every means—fair and foul—into the mix. A lot more will depend on how APC resolves its legacy issues, overcomes its teething challenges, contains its own contradictions, and manages the fallout of its presidential primaries. Despite that the election year has been forced upon us and the campaign period has started by stealth, it is too early to call the 2015 election. There are still many “known unknowns.” But whatever the eventual outcome, this is certain: many things will not stay same again.
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