Implications of the Long Electioneering Period
Postscript by Waziri Adio
One of the key provisions of Electoral Act 2022 is the significant elongation of our electioneering period. Effectively, the time committed to elections is now close to one year, more than double the previous period. During the fevered advocacy for the bill to become law, this was promoted as one of its positive and landmark provisions. And in many ways, it is.
Clearly, having enough time for primaries, political campaigns and the elections proper has its uses. But every positive thing has at least a downside. It is doubtful if enough attention was devoted to the possible negative impacts or the unintended consequences of a long electioneering period before arriving at this consequential decision.
The train has since left the station. As such, we are far too gone to be able to change or moderate the possible downsides of a long electioneering period on the 2023 elections and the country at large. But it is not too early to start thinking about how to achieve a more optimal balance in the next amendment.
First, a quick look at the relevant sections of the law. Section 28 (1) of Electoral Act 2022 mandates the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to publish the notice of election not later than 360 days before the polls.
The bill was signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari on 25th February 2022. The electoral management body complied with this provision the following day, 26th February. That almost one-year notice was all that the political actors needed to crank their election machines to life. They have not looked back since.
Section 29 (1) of the law stipulates that the political parties must submit the names of their candidates to INEC not later than 180 days to the elections; while Section 94 (1) states that political parties can commence public campaigns 150 days to the elections.
On the basis of these provisions, INEC set the following dates: party primaries from 4th April 2022 to 3rd June 2022 (later extended by six days); submission of the names of candidates for federal elections from 10th to 17th June 2022 and for state elections from 1st to 15th July; commencement of campaigns for federal elections on 28th September 2022 and for state elections on 12th October 2022.
This is what it has translated to: election notice was out a full year to the elections; candidates were in place by early June, almost nine months before the elections; campaigns will not start until late September/early October, at least three months after the candidates emerged and roughly five months before the polls.
The electioneering period now has enough air, and maybe too much air. Previously, the whole process was usually cramped within 90 days. This put a lot of pressure on all involved, especially the election management body.
The elongation sure has many benefits. The issue though is whether those same benefits could not have been retained by moving the election calendar from three months to five or six months, instead of to almost one year. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s exhaust the pros before we look at the cons, then the case for a middle-ground.
The first and most compelling benefit is that the extension gives INEC enough time to conduct free, fair and credible elections. Conducting elections in a complex and diverse country with spotty infrastructure like ours is no mean task. It is a major logistics undertaking, and requires meticulous planning, procurement of sensitive electoral materials that are not available off-the-shelf, and hiring and training of mostly ad-hoc staff members.
Combined with the provision in Section 3 (3) that the money for election must be released to INEC not later than a year before the general election, the increase in time is definitely good for the election management body, which commendably has been giving a good account of itself. INEC will thus have all the money and all the time it needs to perform even better.
The second benefit is that the extension grants INEC more flexibility to quickly and realistically adjust to emergencies or unforeseen developments. This is the luxury that ample time offers. Relatedly, the third benefit of the extension is that it will grant INEC enough wriggle room to accommodate resolution of pre-election matters by the courts. This is important given that the bulk of election litigations are pre-election matters and that judgements delivered close to the elections could lead to the need to print fresh ballot papers.
Beyond the obvious issue of cost, such scenarios also have logistics implications. Ballot papers, for security reasons, are not printed by just any printer, and the pre-selected and usually foreign printers may be fully booked when such an urgent need arises. The new provisions should insulate INEC from dealing with fewer of such logistics nightmares, especially because there is also a deadline for courts to resolve pre-election disputes.
Without a doubt, the extension gives INEC more headroom to operate. However, INEC is not the sole beneficiary. Having the election notice/timetable on time provides clarity and certainty to political actors and the country at large. At some point, there were wild speculations about the 2023 elections. INEC’s unveiling of the election timetable took the sting out of this distraction. This made it easier for all those involved in election matters to plan better. Certainty and clarity can thus be identified as the fourth benefit.
The fifth benefit is that having the candidates on time and ensuring that they campaign for long should provide the electorate ample time to properly scrutinise the candidates and their promises. All things being equal, this should empower citizens to make more informed choices at the polls.
And lastly, some of the political parties can also benefit from the added time. They will have enough time to adjust to emergencies and to upturn, maintain or regain momentums. If a day is accepted as a long time in politics, a period of eight months is clearly a very, very long time in an election year. That is enough time for any possibility. This should provide some comfort to those interested in upstaging the status quo and those exploring viable electoral alliances and other such permutations. Time is on their side, though not in absolute terms.
As stated earlier, there are also downsides to this unusual extension, and some of them are quite substantial. The first and a very obvious one is that the law has by default extended the lame-duck period. The moment the candidates emerged, attention shifted away from the president and other term-barred incumbents who have about one year left of their tenures. That is enough time to still get some key things done or at least to complete their major programmes and initiatives.
But most of these incumbents have logged out and everyone else is distracted, including most of their aides who are busy positioning themselves for post-May 29 realities. The traditional lame-duck period is usually between the election and the swearing-in of a new administration. Now, that period has become more elastic, and stretched way back.
The second related downside is that active politicking has completely upstaged governance. I had mentioned this concern earlier on this page and on other platforms. A cynical fellow rebutted that not much governance happens in this country anyway. From little governance, we have effectively backflipped into the zone of near zero governance.
During the primaries, we were all witnesses to how almost all the state governors abandoned their states and relocated to Abuja, and it is no secret that very little gets done in the states when the governors are out of town. The National Assembly was on recess. The president, the governors and other party leaders were constantly meeting. You don’t need to be in the room to know that governance was not on the agenda of those meetings.
The conclusion of the primaries has not dramatically reversed this easily predicted crowding out of governance by politics. The political actors in elected positions are busy dealing with the fallouts of the primaries (very evident in the National Assembly where about 70% didn’t get the tickets to contest) or getting ready to campaign for themselves, their successors or their parties’ presidential flagbearers.
Even when actual campaigns will start in September, it is better to write off the period between the primaries and February/March next year as a time lost to elections. The few governance and policy issues that manage to swim to the surface will likely be addressed with an eye on the election. Our politicians, including elected ones, are not known for multi-cropping, especially during election season. Governance is too important to trade off so flippantly, especially for a country at this present pass.
Extending the campaign period from roughly eight weeks to twenty weeks officially has huge financial implications. Running for elections costs serious money, even for basic things like posters, jingles, transportation, and polling agents. Yes, the electoral act sets limits on campaign finance. But it is difficult to really monitor how much candidates and parties expend on campaigns. It is plausible that most serious candidates in past elections even spent beyond the expanded limit set by the new law. What is not difficult to figure out is that the sum needed to run a serious campaign for sixty days will not be the same as what is needed to run the same campaign for 150 days.
Also, the 90 days between the emergence of candidates and the commencement of public campaigns should for all intents and purposes be filed as the unofficial, non-public campaign period. Candidates will attend and host meetings; they will speak at events and to the media. If that is not campaigning, then maybe nothing is. And even when it is subtle and below the surface, it will not be cost-free, even if not captured officially as campaign expenses. Effectively, the law has offered an eight-month campaign window that can be divided into: three months for low intensity, non-public campaigns and five months for high-intensity, public campaigns.
This additional financial burden will task all candidates, no matter how long they have been in this game and the depth of their support systems. They will need a lot of stamina and will need to figure out how to pace themselves for this unusually long period. This will be the key question for their strategists: how do you stay visible and connected without exhausting your finite war chest?
No matter how they answer this question or the strategy they develop and deploy, the additional resource burden will impact candidates differently. Those with lean resources and limited financial networks are likely to be at a disadvantage, and those with deep pockets and in control of patronage systems are likely to be better resourced for a race that has been suddenly transformed from a sprint to a marathon. The playing field is likely to become more uneven. Talk about unintended consequences, because I doubt this was the intention of those who advocated for the elongation.
I will argue for reducing the electioneering window to five months. So, for an election in February, the primaries can start in September instead of April in the current law or in December as was the previous practice. Five months can still afford us most of the lofty benefits of the elongation without saddling us with some of its crippling and possibly unintended downsides on governance and entry barrier to elective office. For sure, there will always be trade-offs. But it is important to always think through options, and to always ensure that serious and unavoidable losses can be minimised.