Worries are mounting over the increasing proliferation of political parties in Nigeria as the Independent National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (INEC) recently issued certificates to 21 parties it registered in December last year.
The new parties have brought the number of political parties in the country to a staggering 67, thereby raising concern on the country’s ability to cope with the logistical demands of such unwieldy number of parties contesting for political offices.
Ordinarily, the number of political parties in a country where freedom of association is constitutionally guaranteed should be of little concern. Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) states: “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests.”
This liberal disposition to the registration of parties has been taken advantage of by politicians with the result that the sheer number of parties may soon constitute a source of confusion to voters and pose administrative hurdles for the electoral umpire during national elections.
The proliferation of political parties is difficult to understand except in the context of Nigeria’s political history following the lengthy periods of military rule.
As the military planned to disengage, they encouraged the formation of political parties whose founders were then paid considerable sums for various reasons.
The rush by politicians to found political parties rather than align with the ones with which they share similar ideologies have persisted till now, with no fewer than 115 parties seeking registration at the end of last year, out of which INEC registered 21. If the agency had accepted to register all the parties, Nigeria would today be contending with nearly 160 political parties.
It is, indeed, troubling that political parties are now viewed as business ventures set up in anticipation of financial offers in return for clandestine endorsements of wealthy candidates running for office. Some of these parties often have nothing on the ground in terms of membership, influence or geographical spread, and may not even have more than a couple of offices in a few cities. Their essential credential is that they are registered political parties, recognised by INEC to compete for power in national elections. This system of selling endorsements can only lead to corruption.
Nigerians’ loose definition of a political party constitutes the core of this problem. In other countries, a political party is strictly defined as an organisation “subscribing to a certain ideology or formed around very special issues” with the aim to participate in power, usually by participating in elections. We urge INEC to insist on purposeful political parties, to register only parties with specific missions and issues, and to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Multi-party democracies have developed methods to ensure that parties stick to their purpose. The United States has roughly 88 political parties but only three have elected representatives at the federal level, seven others have representatives at the state and local government levels. The United Kingdom lists 117 political parties, most of them minor, special interest, even religious parties. There are 30 registered parties in Ghana, 24 in Senegal, 65 in Germany, although only 13 have representatives in the Bundestag. Brazil has a complex multi-party system with the result that eight different parties share the 62 seats in the Senate while the 460 seats in lower house, are shared by 22 parties, some winning as many as 66 seats and others as few as one.
Advocates of unfettered freedom in terms of the number of parties fear that any measure taken to limit the number is likely to be abused by officialdom. It could lead to the bribery of the registering body like INEC or the suppression of votes in some parts of the country.
INEC must discourage the use of political parties as tools of monetary speculation by making it more difficult to register parties that do not fulfill the basic requirement of having an ideology or an issue on which their existence is based. The National Assembly should also strive to amend the section of the Constitution that makes the formation of political parties an all-comers affair.
In some countries, for a party to be registered to participate in national elections, it must prove that at least three per cent of registered voters during the last election have signed up as its members. Politicians keen on registering new political parties should be able to demonstrate the seriousness of their cause by gathering three per cent of the signatures of persons registered for the last election. In the United States, the requirements vary from state to state because the country does not have a national party. Each state party is independent and sets its own standard. For instance, to run as an independent presidential candidate in Alabama, the new candidate must collect signatures equivalent to three per cent of the total votes cast in the last election for the specific race or three per cent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election for statewide races. Verifiable signatures are not the easiest things to collect. Stringent measures such as this will help to keep only but the most seriously committed politicians in the race for registration of parties.
Provisions should be made in our electoral laws for de-registration of political parties which fail to garner a certain percentage of votes cast in a general election, maybe five per cent. There should be a provision for “loss of recognition” for non-performing parties. On the other hand, new parties seeking registration should present signatures equivalent to three per cent of the votes cast in the last election. That way, the parties would develop a more businesslike approach, cooperate and fuse their ideas together and in general create a more consensual polity which would be good for national unity. Some of these changes would require tweaking the Electoral Act. We should not refrain from doing this, to strengthen our democracy.