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Nigeria Senate backs Jan polls, pressure on Jonathan

By on July 22, 2010

Nigeria’s Senate on Wednesday approved a constitutional amendment requiring elections in January, putting pressure on President Goodluck Jonathan to declare whether he will run and shortening the campaign period.

The presidential race is shaping up to be the fiercest since Nigeria’s return to democracy a decade ago, with Jonathan declining to say whether he will stand and questions remaining over whether the ruling party would back him if he did.

The amendment, which must also be passed by the House of Representatives, brings the election forward to January from April with the aim of allowing any legal challenges to be settled before the new presidential term begins in May.

But the accelerated timeframe piles pressure on the divided ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to organise primaries and on Jonathan to state his intentions.

It also leaves little time for the electoral changes needed if the polls are to be credible, including an accurate voter list.

“It takes 6-9 months to prepare for a proper election, so I can’t see it happening. What you have is a recipe for chaos,” Bismarck Rewane, head of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives, told Reuters.

The aim of the change is to avoid the sort of legal wrangling which overshadowed the first months in office of late President Umaru Yar’Adua, when court challenges by defeated rivals undermined his authority and slowed government business.

The amendment requires elections be held between 120 and 150 days before the presidential term ends, meaning the polls would be in January. The constitution currently states that polls must be held 30-60 days before the new term begins.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said in March that the elections would be held on January 22, 2011, if parliament passed the electoral reforms, although the INEC chairman has since been replaced and that date could change.

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A presidential bid by Jonathan in 2011 could be controversial because he is from the Christian south, and an unwritten agreement in the ruling party dictates the president serving the next term should be from the Muslim north.

But some senior PDP figures have said they believe the “zoning agreement” — meant to avoid a build-up of resentment between the two main regions in the country — has had its day.

Some northerners have said they would back a Jonathan bid, while those with the most to lose from abandoning zoning include southerners who were betting on the principle giving them a seat at the top table at the next polls in 2015.

Jonathan said last month it was too early for him to declare whether he would run, saying it would be a distraction in a political environment that “gets too heated up”, and that the best time to declare would be just before the primaries.

But since taking over the presidency in May after the death of Yar’Adua, he increasingly looks like a man who intends to remain in office, announcing policies and initiatives that will stretch into the next presidential term.

He has made organising credible polls in 2011 one of the main ambitions of his administration, but critics say the only way he can succeed is if he does not himself stand.

The new timeframe, which is expected to be voted on by the House of Representatives this week, may avoid prolonged uncertainty after polling day by giving a clear period within which electoral disputes are to be settled.

But it leaves INEC with little time to bring about the changes needed to avoid a repeat of the chaotic 2007 polls, so marred by ballot stuffing and intimidation that observers deemed them not to be credible.

The new head of the country’s INEC electoral commission said last month that establishing accurate voter lists was a vital first step. An electoral roll riddled with fictitious names and omitting legitimate voters was one of the main problems in 2007.

Reuters.

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