What happens when elections don’t work?

Today the Nigerian electoral commission announced that the presidential election scheduled for next Saturday would be postponed for 6 weeks, due to the Boko Haram security crisis. President Goodluck Jonathan’s PDP party is pleased with the decision, but the opposition APC party is not. They believe the decision was taken to give the PDP more chance to win, and they have a point. The army apparently forced the commission into the decision by informing them that the military would not be able to provide security for the election at all, as they were busy fighting. However, six weeks is not going to solve a long running and hugely difficult conflict. To make matters worse, all signs point to the elections only bringing more violence.

Goodluck Jonathan- The best name in politics

Nigeria is deeply divided between the Muslim north and the Christian south, and the fact that the two candidates for election represent this divide is troubling. If Goodluck Jonathan wins the election, the more impoverished north will feel like it is again being neglected, which in 2011 led to violence against southerners. It could also drive more young men into the arms of Boko Haram. If Jonathan loses to his northern opponent though, militant groups in the southern delta have promised violence. Jonathan is their man, and they see him as bringing oil wealth back to where it comes from. Him losing could lead to the delta insurgency restarting, and another conflict is not what the country needs.

As a result, a democratic country finds itself in the position where elections lead to conflict instead of democracy. In my very first article on this blog I wrote about another country where this is the case, Thailand. There the rural population became an unbeatable voting bloc supporting various ‘redshirt’ parties. Each new election was guaranteed to bring them to power Their urban ‘yellowshirt’ opponents had to resort to political schemes and two coups to stop what they saw as a corrupt government. Now Thailand’s military rulers are attempting to change the system to ensure the redshirts can never win again.

Ukraine had a similar problem before the revolution. The country was divided into east and west, and in each election from 2004 each half voted for a different party. Whichever won, the other’s supporters felt unrepresented by government. Widespread fraud and corruption didn’t help, and this led to revolutions in 2004 and 2014. While the separatist movement is a Russian creation, there is no denying that even before the current war many easterners were deeply unsatisfied with the government.

In all of these countries we see the same problem. The country is divided into groups who vote for ‘their (wo)man’. In Thailand one group was significantly larger, but in countries like Nigeria the division isn’t as large. Whoever wins, rules for their voters, not for the country as a whole. This can be a tyranny of the majority, where losing an election means losing any say in government. This then can also lead to violence, coups and revolutions as the minority tries to claw back some power.

Not your average leader

So obviously elections do not always lead to stability or democracy. However, this doesn’t mean giving up on democracy itself. What countries like Nigeria or Ukraine need in the short term is a uniquely skilled leader who can govern for the nation. This requires someone able to reach out to opponents and let them be heard, as well as dealing with their own hardcore supporters unwilling to share power. Nelson Mandela is the perfect example of such a leader, a brilliant and forgiving man. Unfortunately, people like him only come around once in a lifetime.

In the long term though, a deeper culture of compromise will need to develop, where governments listen to the opposition and the opposition doesn’t start shooting. For Nigeria today it’s questionable whether this is the case anymore. If the elections aren’t held in 6 weeks time, things will get ugly, but if they are held, things might get even uglier. Nigeria’s leaders will need all the wisdom they can find in the coming weeks.

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One thought on “What happens when elections don’t work?

  1. Pingback: Nigerian elections: Two big surprises | Your World Explained

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