Will new voters swing the 2023 election?

Tijani Ahmed waves his brand-new voter’s card and points to his date of birth. He turned 18 in February, and 2023 would be the very first time he would be voting.

He rides a commercial tricycle in Abuja for a living. Every member of his family who could vote, according to him, voted for Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015 and 2019.

“We all voted for APC in Jigawa, and we thought Baba was going to change things for the masses. We have not seen any change. Things have got even worse. The economy is so bad. The masses are suffering,” he said in Hausa.
Ahmed said he would likely vote for Rabiu Kwankwaso, the presidential candidate of the New Nigeria People’s Party, in next year’s elections.

Just weeks away, and with President Buhari constitutionally barred from contesting, Nigerians will be choosing a new leader in February; a fresh face that will have to immediately confront an exhaustive collection of challenges, including rising poverty, unending insecurity and an economy that is in the doldrums.

About 9.5 million are new voters, an ample group that is expanding the electorate and could have a significant impact on the 2023 presidential elections.

While the democratisation of social media has created safe spaces for new voters to be better informed about candidates’ policies and programmes and to interrogate the narratives that candidates push out to voters, it is clear that the battle ahead lies in the hands of the undecided/swing voters as they would ultimately decide which candidate takes the lead to emerge as the next President.

Less than three million votes determined who won the last presidential election. In the 2019 presidential vote, the incumbent, Buhari of the APC defeated the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Atiku Abubakar, with 3,928,869 votes. Four years earlier, in 2015, Buhari had been propelled into office by a margin of 2,571,759 votes to defeat the then-incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan.

Disaggregated data from the Independent National Electoral Commission show that Nigeria’s new voters represent the entire strata of the country’s social economy. Of these new voters, 3,890,358 (40.87 percent) are students, 1,573,836 (16.54 percent) are into business, while 1,161,911 (12.21 percent) are housewives.

The data further show that, 1,139,141 (11.97 percent) are either farmers or fishermen; 474,726 (4.99 percent), artisans; and 437,283 (4.59 percent), traders.

In addition, 225,167 (2.37 percent) are civil servants and 77,294 (0.81 percent) are in the public service. Other economic group constitutes 538,472 (5.66 percent) of the new voting population.

Findings from the African Polling Institute/BusinessDay poll conducted in July 2022 show that 93 percent of respondents were interested in the coming elections, with 80 percent of the respondents having Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) and 13 percent awaiting PVC collection.

A December 2022 ANAP Foundation poll conducted by NOI Polls shows that 73 percent of respondents aged 18-25, 82 percent of those aged 26-35, 85 percent of those aged 36-45, 86 percent of those aged 46-60 and 82 percent of those aged 61+ responded that they would definitely vote in the coming elections. The age groups that expressed the greatest willingness to vote were those between 36-45 and 46-60 years.

The poll showed “that almost 8 in 10 registered voters are absolutely certain that they would be voting in the next presidential election. If they stay committed then we could witness a huge turnout in the February Presidential 2023 elections”.

With 40.87 percent of new voters being students and 76.56 percent being youths, issues relating to the youth, education and jobs, are therefore likely to take centre stage in this election. Skill development, higher education opportunities and jobs are going to be priority issues for many of these voters. They are all areas in need of more resources and attention.

Between February and October 2022, Nigeria’s public universities were shut down and academic activities were completely paralysed after the Academic Staff Union of Universities called an industrial action to demand an improved welfare package for university lecturers and revitalisation funds to improve the infrastructure and operations of federal universities. For eight months, students in the country’s state-owned institutions stayed home twiddling their thumbs.

It is most likely that many of the new voters, especially students who either were left at home during the strike or haven’t been able to gain admission to public universities as a result of the strike, would vote to sanction the party in power for inefficiently managing the industrial action of the academic union.

Employment will likely be the biggest issue for the new vote bank. Nigeria’s unemployment rate hit a record of 33.3 percent in the last quarter of 2020, the second highest in the world. It is projected to rise further in 2023. Youth unemployment stands at 42.5 percent.

Sixty-three percent of persons living within the country (133 million people) are living in multidimensional poverty, more people than in any other country. The World Bank says sluggish growth, low human capital, labour market weaknesses, and exposure to shocks are holding Nigeria’s poverty reduction back.

Read also: Undecided voters and 2023 elections

Keen to vote for the first time, Nigeria’s new voters can determine who becomes the country’s next president. While it is certainly a numbers game, it is also clear that for most of the fresh voters, it is also an ‘issue of issues’. The issues will likely determine the numbers.

Across the country, voters who have newly registered to vote are keen for the next government to grow the economy, tackle insecurity and create jobs.

For many new voters, the devastating economic and security situation in the country will be driving them to vote, to impose electoral costs against parties and identified politicians.

The December ANAP poll shows that the top five reasons why voters are more inclined to vote in the forthcoming elections are: the need to tackle insecurity (35 percent), economy (26 percent), unemployment (10 percent), poverty alleviation (7 percent) and education (6 percent).

“Rising poverty, inequality, and inadequacy of employment opportunities, particularly among the youth,” a May 2022 Agusto & Co report said, “are at the centre of Nigeria’s insecurity problem. Thus, increased insecurity in Nigeria has coincided with rising poverty levels, with an estimated 83 million people which is 39 percent of the total population, living in extreme poverty (less than $2 per day) as at April 2022. This is a significant 18 percent increase from 70 million people recorded in 2016.”

While some of these new voters are likely to vote based on ethnic cleavages or entrenched clientelist networks, successive polls have shown that most new voters would likely vote based on their perceptions of politicians’ ability to deliver collective or public goods.

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