But can APC achieve Labour’s feat in 1997 and defeat the incumbent, PDP? That depends on whether it is, as Labour was, a credible and acceptable alternative. However, to find out, we need an issue-based campaign, and we need critically to assess both parties’ competence, values and vision through the lens of their manifestoes and candidates.
The countdown to the 2015 general elections has begun in earnest. But with just a month before the presidential election on February 14, the campaign is, so far, heavy on negativity and light on issues. An election should be a time for politicians to make a positive pitch and set out their vision for the country. However, what we have witnessed, so far, is tit-for-tat mud-slinging by the main candidates, and their parties.
Yet Nigerians want more than a raucous campaign; they need proper debates on issues. Election is the process of accepting or rejecting a political proposition by voting. But how can voters make informed choices when politicians fail to articulate and defend their programmes during election campaign? This is why there should be serious presidential debates, and why the media and expert commentators should scrutinise the parties’ manifestoes and challenge the candidates on the coherence and do-ability of their programmes. Parties should not get away with the gimmickry of making outlandish campaign promises with little evidence of how they would fulfil them in office.
More on the major parties’ manifestoes and promises another day. My aim here is to advance a proposition that next month’s presidential election imposes different challenges, different onuses, on the incumbent, PDP, and the main challenger, APC, and that they need to frame their campaign in that light. Let me start with PDP.
I believe that this presidential election should be a referendum, a confidence vote, on the long tenure of the PDP, and not just President Jonathan. When a political party has governed Nigeria for 16 years, since 1999, and that party is asking Nigerians for four more years, which would bring its tenure to 20 consecutive years, and effectively turn Nigeria into a dominant-party state, if not a de facto one-party state, then the election should not just be run-of-the-mill or simply about the party’s candidate. Nigerians should examine the 16 years of PDP’s tenure cumulatively and holistically, and ask themselves whether the country has been well-served, or otherwise let down, by the party’s long rule.
The risk and danger of a dominant-party state are too great that Nigerians should not simply give PDP another four years on a platter. The party must fight this election on its record in office for 16 years, in addition to telling Nigerians why it needs four more years. It’s important for the integrity of Nigeria’s democracy to ensure that the social contract from which the ruling party derived its legitimacy to govern Nigeria for this long has not been violated. For violation of a social contract was, as John Locke argued, always a justification for removing a sovereign!
Now, although I worry about the non-competitiveness of Nigeria’s national political space, I am not making an anti-incumbency argument here. Indeed, despite their long rule, I can imagine two conditions under which it would be justified to give PDP and President Jonathan four more years in next month’s election. The first is if Nigerians examine closely PDP’s 16 years’ rule and conclude that the party has done well for Nigeria, and moved the country forward, and that President Jonathan would sustain and advance that good work. After all, why would you change a winning team, even a long-serving one? The second condition is if Nigerians conclude that PDP has failed the country over the past 16 years but, having looked at the challenger, APC, believe that it is not a credible and acceptable alternative, and, therefore, decide, albeit reluctantly, to stick with PDP. That, too, would be rational. It would, indeed, be unwise to replace a sub-optimal relationship of 16 years with one that could make you worse off, or at least not better off, than you currently are.
This has huge implications for the opposition party, APC. By all means, they should expose the weaknesses of PDP and make the case for change. But that won’t be enough. They need to give Nigerians the opportunity to vote for a complete change that would radically transform this nation and improve the lives of its people. Elections are normally fought on three terrains: competence, values and vision. The APC needs to convince most Nigerians that they are leagues ahead of PDP on these terrains, and that the choice before the electorate is not just between six of one and half a dozen of the other.
As the American journalist, Franklin Adams, famously said, “Elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody.” This is a lesson for both parties, but particularly APC. For instance, despite the presumed unpopularity of PDP as the governing party, Nigerians could, if they see APC as an inappropriate alternative, vote against the party to stop it from gaining power rather than for PDP to remain in power. PDP would then retain power by default! A recent example from Britain’s electoral history is also pertinent here.
In 1990, after 11 years of the Conservative party’s rule in Britain, under Margaret Thatcher, the mood in the country was decidedly in favour of change, with Labour having a 14 percent lead over the Conservatives. Then, in November 1990, the party removed Margaret Thatcher from office and replaced her with John Major. Yet, the Tories still lagged behind Labour in the polls, and most people expected Labour to win the general election in April 1992. However, as the election got closer, the British people began to evaluate the Labour party and its leader, Neil Kinnock, and did not like what they saw. They voted to stick with the Tories. But, in fact, what really happened, to invoke Franklin Adams’ theory, was that most of the electorate voted against Labour rather than for the Conservatives. So, the Tories won by default!
Of course, the story did not end there, and this should encourage APC. Five years later in 1997, after being in power for 18 years, the Conservative party was riven by sleaze, incompetence and internal squabbles. Even Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister, turned against her beleaguered successor, John Major. Predictably, the Conservatives lost the 1997 general election. But, wait a minute! Did the Conservatives lose because of their unpopularity and the prevailing mood for change? Partly, but that was not the decisive factor. Crucially, they lost in 1997 because they faced a radically transformed opposition, the Labour party, with a positive agenda, and a dynamic leader, Tony Blair. An ill-prepared and ill-favoured Labour party would still have lost to the Tories despite the latter’s unpopularity.
As the ruling party, PDP today faces the same challenges as the Conservative party of the 1990s. Call it the curse of longevity. Even former President Obasanjo, who ruled Nigeria for 8 years under the party’s banner, is, like Thatcher, very critical of his successor and has refused to endorse his party’s presidential candidate in next month’s election! Indeed, many believed that Thatcher silently favoured Blair over Major in the 1997 general election, just as some think Obasanjo silently prefers APC’s presidential candidate, General Buhari, to his own party’s flag-bearer, President Jonathan!