/Beyond INEC’s hammer on parties

Beyond INEC’s hammer on parties

A constitution amendment that culminated in a legal pronouncement might yet instil orderliness into Nigeria’s chaotic electoral system. Specifically, the Independent National Electoral Commission had been lamenting the proliferation of political parties contesting elections after the country’s return to democracy on May 29, 1999. Finally, the judiciary has intervened by reaffirming the power of INEC to deregister parties from its books. To INEC and the protagonists of a manageable electoral space, the reprieve is a major step in the right direction.

But regardless of the court ruling, party deregistration is a very complex issue. At the inception of the Fourth Republic, 11 parties fielded candidates in the presidential election. That has been the least number recorded in this dispensation. Seeing the inordinate benefits associated with public office, the number of parties has grown steadily. At the next cycle in 2003, 30 parties existed but only 20 fielded presidential candidates. By 2007, out of 43 parties, over 20 fielded presidential candidates.

At this time, INEC gave annual grants to parties in line with Section 91 (2) of the Electoral Act. Billions of naira went down the drain in maintaining fake party sponsors until its abuse instigated the repeal of the clause. However, the notion that stopping the funding of parties would provoke a reduction proved to be a false dawn. By the 2011 polls, INEC had 63 parties on its books, out of which more than 20 presented presidential contestants. This definitely posed another challenge.

Although the number of parties decreased to 26 in the 2015 general election, this was temporary. By the 2019 polls, the number spiked again as 73 – out of 79 – contested the presidential ballot. That glut put INEC in a difficult position. The paperwork and logistics were exacting. It imposed extra spending on the umpire to print ballot papers. In a society with low literacy level, it put the electorate at a disadvantage to identify their parties of choice on Election Day.

Worse, in 2018, INEC complained that over 100 political associations had submitted fresh applications for registration. In the end, the umpire took solace in an amendment to the 1999 Constitution. The amended Section 225 (a) that gave INEC the power to deregister parties came to the rescue. “Failure to win at least 25 per cent of the votes cast in one state in a presidential election or 25 per cent of the votes cast in one local government area, 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,” it says. Armed with this, INEC delisted 74 parties from its register in February.

The aggrieved parties were not convinced and headed for court. They lost out, making Nigeria have 18 registered political parties currently. Out of this, only the ruling All Progressives Congress (at the centre), the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Grand Alliance currently have sitting governors at the state level. A few others like the Zenith Labour Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Young Progressives Party join the trio above in the National Assembly.

It is debatable, but INEC’s big stick might not end the trend, because, for one, it does not diminish the existence of parties as a form of association. Neither does it mean that a party does not exist if it is not on the ballot during elections as there are interest groups, pressure groups and parties. In addition, the defunct parties might invent other ways to beat the INEC hammer. One is for politicians to form new associations and secure INEC registration. After fresh registrations and poor performance by the new parties, INEC would delist them again, a cyclical burden on a fragile system.

In functional democracies, parties are allowed to evolve primarily because banning parties seems undemocratic and could infringe on the right to peaceful assembly and association, which is enshrined in Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution. In theory and in praxis, political parties refer to different mechanisms for the public to express opinions – and ideally exert influence – regarding political, economic, management or other social decisions. Apart from that, the need for parties might arise at the grass roots to represent special interests not accommodated by big national parties. In other democracies, parties are established not to secure power alone: some campaign for special interests, like the European Green Party, a stateless party that is now represented in the European Parliament. Others build up their structures over a period before presenting candidates for office. The APC came into existence in 2014, formed by at least three disparate parties. These interests matter in a democracy.

Although Labour and Conservatives are the two dominant parties in the United Kingdom, nine other parties contested the general election in 2015. The UK Independent Party came to prominence in 2011 by advocating exit from the EU and reduced immigration. The Scottish National Party regained moment after it narrowly lost the “Yes” referendum campaign for Scotland’s independence in 2014. In the United States, the Republican and Democrat, the two dominant parties, evolved over time. Despite this, America’s politics accommodates independent candidacy but requires gathering a percentage of signatures from the electorate to get on the ballot.

Incidentally, the existing parties are ideologically weak. Before elections, their members defect whimsically to other parties, most times just to secure tickets to contest for positions. Primary elections are a charade, which the courts often overturn.

Yet, INEC treats the parties with kid gloves. Its chairman, Mahmud Yakubu, said that despite an extant rule, only five parties submitted their election campaign accounts to it after the 2015 polls. In 2017, 17 parties had no offices in Abuja, while 18 others had no national executive committees. The umpire should stop tolerating this and apply appropriate sanctions.

To manage elections efficiently and grow democracy, INEC should not shrink the political space. It should let parties be, but fundamentally, prescribe rules to demarcate the parties that can get on the ballot at every level of government and those that cannot. The constitution should be amended to reflect this.

Source: Punch Editorial