Political research group, Eurasia, presents its analysis of the 2015 presidential election. In this assessment, February, Eurasia tips President Goodluck Jonathan for a narrow victory over Muhammadu Buhari.
§ We lower our probability of President Jonathan’s re-election to 55% as an energized Buhari campaign gains momentum in swing regions.
§ The issues of weak security and corruption will play to Buhari’s advantage.
§ Yet, machine politics and access to money are likely to decide Nigeria’s election, leaving Jonathan and the PDP with the edge.
Opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, who coasted to a decisive primary win in December, continues to build on that momentum and as a result, the February election looks poised to be a very close content between him and President Goodluck Jonathan. A number of factors are conspiring for Buhari’s surge and justify why we are lowering the probability of Jonathan winning reelection from 60% to 55%.
First, despite initial concerns that he would divide the All Progressives Congress (APC), the opposition coalition has united behind him, energizing his campaign beyond his northern base. Unlike 2011, when Jonathan trounced Buhari by twenty-six percentage points (58% vs. 32%), the challenger will run a nationwide campaign this time, with more money and southern-based coalition partners.
Second, there are signs that the Buhari campaign is making inroads in the south while Jonathan is losing some support in the North. The vice presidential appointment of Yemi Osinbajo, a respected lawyer (former attorney-general of Lagos) and cleric in Nigeria’s fastest growing church, has reassured many southerners in the coalition. The recent defection of nearly 20 MPs to the APC, many of them from the battleground southwest, is another sign that Buhari is gaining ground there. There are also indications that ruling PDP governors in the north are quietly distancing themselves from President Jonathan and curbing their support (a problem since governor backing is often decisive in the states). The distancing from Jonathan may be partly in fear of retribution by Boko Haram but also likely reflects the president’s unpopularity in these states.
Buhari’s southwestern partners and Jonathan’s unpopularity in much of the north indicate that Jonathan’s 2011 advantages may be eroded this time. An early indicator of this is the relative turnout at campaign events. Buhari, like Jonathan, launched his campaign in the southwest. The opposition’s rallies have overshadowed the president’s, with bigger turnouts. Turnout at campaign rallies is an important gauge of political momentum given the scarcity of credible polling. In order to win, the APC will need to narrow the turnout gap at the polls in its bases this time versus the PDPs turnout in its bases (the PDP had a huge turnout advantage last time).
Finally, Buhari holds an edge over Jonathan in two electoral issues which will resonate in this election: security and corruption. Security is Buhari’s top card. The Jonathan administration is widely seen as weak and incompetent on national defense, especially regarding Boko Haram. A former general and head of state, with deep support in the north, Buhari is positioning himself as the more credible commander in chief. His stature in the north would help restore trust and cooperation between the armed forces and civilians in the embattled region.Likewise, corruption will continue to be a strong issue for the Buhari campaign. Like security, anti-corruption is part of Buhari’s brand. Jonathan’s reputation, on the other hand, has suffered in the last two years due to impunity in corruption scandals and inaction over missing oil revenues. Close ties to the unpopular petroleum minister Diezani Alison-Madueke has not helped, though it has helped campaign financing.
But Jonathan should still be considered a slight favorite
President Goodluck Jonathan, however, should still be considered a slight favorite to win reelection. In the first place, Jonathan, still holds an advantage in the regional chessboard—a key factor in Nigerian elections. Top-down regional politics, which intersects with ethnic and sectarian identities, trumps political ideology in determining electoral outcomes – and that will likely be true again on 14 February. The political chessboard plays out in 6 distinct regions (or “geopolitical zones”, including south-south, south-central, south-west, north-west, north-north and north-east), going well beyond the usual shorthand of north and south. From this vantage point, Jonathan is likely to win his home region south-south and south-east decisively, and will be competitive in south-west (which he won last time) and north-west. Buhari will take north-east (if there are elections in Boko Haram’s base, as we expect) and north-west, leaving north-north and south-west as the chief battle grounds. The north-north is likely to go to Buhari while the populous southwest may lean towards Jonathan; if so that points to a Jonathan win.
Second, it is important to remember that defeating an incumbent for reelection is no easy task. According to a model for predicting elections developed jointly with IPSOS Public Affairs that draws upon an data set of over 200 elections worldwide, incumbents who have public approval ratings over 40%-60% win reelection 85% of the time. The lack of credible polling data in Nigeria makes it difficult to have a good gauge of public opinion sentiment, but one of the more credible local polling outfits, NOI, consistently showed national approval ratings for Jonathan at over 50% last year, most recently 55% in December. Even though his levels of support may have dropped a bit further since then, it is unlikely to have dropped below the 40% “red line” that incumbents seeking reelection usually face.
Finally, the PDP will be able to draw upon its traditional advantages that have been decisive in prior elections: strong party machinery that can turn out the vote. The general tendency has been for PDP incumbents to win, usually fueled by money, grassroots organization, and the support of political ‘godfathers’ that can deliver votes en masse. While the APC also has these elements in place, the PDP has the advantage, built over 15 years in power. The Jonathan campaign has been fundraising for over a year, mostly fueled by oil money. It has political boots on the ground down to the ward level across the country.
Both sides will rig in their bases. But as the party in power, with control of the police and security apparatus, the PDP will have more resources deployed to ward off election observers or intimidate APC voters (missing voter cards is already an issue). In 2011, the states that voted for Jonathan had a considerably higher turnout than the average. This will happen again, most notably in the unstable northeast, but perhaps elsewhere in Buhari’s base. The possible ‘militarization’ of the election in certain regions could contribute to a stronger backlash should the APC lose.
What to look out for
That said, this election will be very close and there are a few factors which could tip the scales in favor of Buhari. A sharp deterioration in the security climate, like the seizure of more towns or mass-kidnappings by Boko Haram, would hurt Jonathan. Likewise a corruption scandal or power breakdown late in the campaign cycle would create headwinds for the administration. More defections from the ruling party to the APC, especially in the swing regions, would give Buhari a boost. Turnout at rallies will be a strong indicator of voter support; Buhari will need to maintain his early momentum in campaign rallies as he canvasses the entire nation. The limited polling data available indicates that Jonathan is above 50% support — Buhari still has a ways to go to displace the incumbent.
Lastly, there are signs that the drop in oil revenues may be hitting the Jonathan campaign’s war-chest as arrears pile up in the public sector. If so, this would dilute one of the administration’s major advantages.
Eurasia is a political risk research and consulting company.
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