Election Postponement: INEC, professors “worried” about voter turnout

Voters checking their names in PU 4 ward 5, Oshogbo.
FILE: Voters checking their names in PU 4 ward 5, Oshogbo.

How do we determine the democratic quality of elections? Political scientist Staffin Lindberg answers competition, participation, and legitimacy.

For Nigerian elections, opening on Saturday after the exercise was earlier called off last week, competition could well be said to be richly in place.

There are scores of political parties but only two – the All Progressives Congress and Peoples Democratic Party – are closely matched.

The legitimacy of the elections, now coming amid high passions especially after the postponement, would be determined after the exercise – just at a point in the process.

But ahead of the rescheduled elections, participation is a concern.

“We are worried about voter turnout,” the spokesperson of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Festus Okoye, told PREMIUM TIMES on Monday night. “We are appealing to Nigerians not allow the disappointment of the postponement to defeat their desire to vote.”

‘Scholarly perspective’

PREMIUM TIMES sought out two scholars of political science to illuminate the conversation.

The two scholars – Femi Mimiko and Dhikru Yagboyaju – expressed differing views on the possibility of low voter turnout when the elections open on Saturday.

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“No doubt about it; there’s every likelihood that voter turnout will be low,” said Mr Yagboyaju, from the University pf Ibadan. “(This is) because of the postponement but also because of the low level of understanding of the need for participation among ordinary Nigerians.”

Mr Yagboyaju situated his position in the context of campaigns against “vote buying” which observers said dominated the Ekiti governorship election held last year.

Given the campaign against that practice, the scholar theorised voter participation might be negatively impacted as it draws many to go vote in a democracy characterised by poverty rate and relatively poor civic culture.

“Many also wait for inducement which is being discouraged now, ” said Mr Yagboyaju.

Mimiko disagrees

However, Mr Mimiko, a professor of political science at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, thinks differently.

“I do not think voter turnout in the upcoming elections would be low relative to previous elections,” said Mr Mimiko. “If we can make about 50 per cent, I would consider that a big deal. Remember also that the integrity of the humongous figures you have in the voters roll may be suspect.”

He said: “critical human security issues” at stake would motivate increased participation and fire the determination of the people to vote.

“Complementing that is the fact that the issues are thrown up by this campaign, and the four years of the Buhari government, are critical and existential – economic hardship, job losses, deepening poverty, and above all, widespread threat to lives and communities,” he said. “These are critical human security issues that tend ordinarily to make people interested in voting.”

He continues, “There is also the fact of the impression already created by the postponement, that somebody somewhere, APC or PDP, may be scheming to tamper with the electoral process in a manner that is disingenuous. The desire to be a part of the popular force to frustrate that may encourage people who ordinarily may not have been interested in voting to now want to vote.”

However, he appears to have other concerns.

He said: “Three issues, however, may threaten voter turnout. The first is the prevailing economic reality. Those who had put money aside to get themselves transported to voting places may find it inconvenient financially to make a return trip to vote on February 23rd.

“Secondly, the sabre rattling by the two leading parties, whose campaigns have tended to be short on issues, and rather long on abuses may have discouraged many people from wanting to vote.

“Thirdly, President Buhari’s open cheque to security operatives to shoot people committing infractions at polling units may scare some innocent citizens away from the voting arenas.”

He said the reported reduction of fuel price by independent marketers and the reduction of flight fares are the types of civil society initiatives that deserve to be supported, as they would impact positively on voter turnout.

“Overall,” Mr Mimiko said, “I do not think the postponement of the elections would impact negatively on voter turnout. It may catalyse bigger voter turnout.”

Both academics asked the political parties – especially ” the leading parties” – to up their game ahead of the rescheduled elections.

“The civil society also must get involved in persuading people to exercise their civic right,” said Mr Mimiko, echoing Mr Yagboyaju, who also extended a call to INEC.

Mr Mimiko said this could help allay the fears of those who may now be scared following President Muhammadu Buhari’s “snatch ballot boxes at the expense of your life” declaration.

INEC, Parties

The spokesperson for INEC, Festus Okoye, told PREMIUM TIMES the commission reversed itself to reopen campaign and political adverts to encourage voter turnout.

“That (to encourage voter turnout) is why we have taken the step to allow the reopening of campaigns,” he said.

Also, the spokesperson for the All Progressives Congress, Lanre Issa-Onilu, said voter turnout was “one of the key points at our caucus meeting.”

He said the party is remobilising its members to go out to vote because “rigging is only possible where there is a low turnout.”

The Peoples Democratic Party’s spokesperson could not be reached for comment on this report. He did not answer calls and also did not reply to a text sent to his phone.

Nigeria’s voter turnout rates over the years

Since regime change stopped happening through the barrel of the gun in 1999, the turnout (for presidential elections) ranged from 43 per cent (2015) to 69 per cent (2003). The 2003 presidential election recorded the highest voter turnout rate Nigeria has recorded, analyses of data compiled from various sources including reports by PREMIUM TIMES, Daily Trust and a research article, show.

Years (presidential elections) Registered voters Percentage of turnout (approx..)
1999 57 938 945 53
2003 60 823 022 69
2007 61 567 036 58
2011 73 528 040 54
2015 68 833 476 43

“If we can make about 50 per cent (in the coming elections), I would consider that a big deal,” said Mr Mimiko.

He added: “Of course, not many democracies make up to 70 per cent voter turnout. Except when you are talking of climes where voting is compulsory – Belgium, and I think Australia too; or pseudo-democracies where disguised dictators so much want to give the impression of legitimacy – places like Egypt, Cameroon, etc.”

In the last presidential election in the US, the voter turnout rate was 55.7 per cent, trailing most of its peers in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, (OECD).

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