Projected Patterns of the 2023 Campaigns

Projected Patterns of the 2023 Campaigns

Postscript by Waziri Adio

Today is Day 5 of the 150-day campaign period for the landmark 2023 polls. It is very early days in an unusually long campaign season, which itself was preceded by a remarkably long hiatus of more than 100 days between the conclusion of primaries and the official kick-off of political campaigns.

Even when scaled down and sometimes cleverly disguised, campaigns went on by other means during the pre-campaign period. Taken together, the pre-campaign activities and the political flashes of the last four days offer generous intimations of how the 2023 campaigns may go.

I will discuss three of the emerging patterns.
Before delving into the likely patterns, I will like to say upfront that while the 2023 contest looks increasingly exciting on paper it may not offer a radical departure in terms of deliberation on and interrogation of the candidates’ vision of society and policy ideas, except a critical mass of citizens and civic groups insist on holding the parties and the candidates to a higher standard this time around.
Yes, the campaigns promise to be intense.

But the intensity we need at a time like this is not just politicians attacking and abusing one another or flaunting the size of the crowds they could assemble. We need the politicians to be intense about the concrete ideas for tackling Nigeria’s urgent challenges.

Yes, records must be examined, candidates’ fitness for office must be interrogated, supporters need to be entertained and fired up, and campaign stops are hardly ideal platforms for detailed discussion of policies and plans.

Beyond and with all these, we need to use the electioneering period to deliberate on our challenges, review the options available, and harvest good ideas for turning our lot around.
Outside of antagonistic and sometimes superficial debates and interviews, we need to have structured and meaningful discussions with, at least, the presidential and governorship candidates.

We need to hear them articulate the specific things they plan to do if elected, their targets and timelines, and how much the different items in their plans will cost and where the money will come from.

Politicians are more comfortable with speaking in general terms, and with mouthing slogans, issuing bogus targets, making wild claims, and avoiding thorny issues.

One of the best ways to use this unusually long campaign period is to get them out of their comfort zone. Let’s get them to talk in great detail about their plans and let’s invest energy in dissecting their ideas. We have the time.
Now, to the emerging patterns of the 2023 campaigns.
The first, and maybe the most obvious, pattern is that the campaigns will largely be about the ruling party on one side and the remaining 17 parties on the other.

Elections are always referenda on the incumbent. All the other parties will unite in putting the All Progressives Congress (APC) on the spot. They can only be elected if APC is not elected. And given the resources and other advantages that go with incumbency, APC is still the party to beat, the obstacle to the common aspiration of all the opposition parties.

Even without a formal alliance, they will find a common cause in saying that the ruling party has not delivered on its promises, has misruled the country and has made life more difficult for Nigerians.

They will put their differences aside and all of them will campaign that APC does not deserve to be re-elected.
Though incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari will not be on the ballot, the opposition parties will make him the issue of their campaigns and will savage his handling of the economy and security, two issues that are on top of the minds of Nigerians at the moment. They will twin him with his party and tell voters: the APC government has not made your life better, don’t return it to power. They will not spare those on the ticket.

They will talk about the lack of religious balance in the APC ticket and question the ability of the APC presidential candidate, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, to withstand the rigour of office.
APC will push back against the united opposition. It will not only defend President Buhari’s records especially on infrastructure, it will argue for the need for continuity to ensure that ongoing projects are completed and to build on the achievements of the administration. The party will also project the records of its candidate as the governor of Lagos State and his running mate as the governor of Borno State.

Though APC seems prepared for this battle, it will have a hard time distancing itself and its presidential candidate from the incumbent president whose yet to be exhausted mythical following may not be transferrable. In response to areas where the government has clearly performed below expectations, the APC will find it difficult to say its candidate will do better than the incumbent because that would be an admission of failure and might amount to demarketing the current government.
The second pattern will be the more direct face-off between APC and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). These are the two leading parties in terms of age, spread and resources. They are also the only parties that have been in power at the centre since 1999. Both have reasons to believe that the real contest is still between the two of them. Both have some history of unfinished between them. PDP had boasted that it would be in power for at least 60 years. But that dream was truncated in 2015 by APC which campaigned stridently against PDP’s 16 years at the helm. PDP has been in the opposition wilderness since, as it came short in 2019.

So, 2023 will be a return match, another opportunity for the two to settle outstanding scores.
Both parties have invested a lot in rubbishing the stewardship of the other. This started with APC which demonised PDP’s reign as 16 years of waste and corruption. Knowing the main opposition party still poses the greatest threat to it, APC will continue to remind Nigerians of its version of the PDP era and will keep saying it has done very well in the last eight years given the challenges it inherited and the limited resources available to it. PDP on its part, will declare that APC has destroyed and mismanaged Nigeria.

To make this point stick, it will continue to cite and compare key economic indicators like inflation and exchange rates, national debt and foreign reserves between 2015 and 2022.

So, we are going to hear a lot of ‘16 years of PDP’ and ‘eight years of APC’ in this campaign, used for both positive and negative framings. In this framing duel, the recency effect favours PDP. This though may not be the only factor that will decide the messaging that voters will find more compelling.
The third pattern will be a spirited contest between what can be loosely called the new and the old. Despite their differences and the grudges they harbour against each other, both APC and PDP have been narrativized in popular imagination as two rotten peas in a pod. Both of them have been cast as the undesirable old guard by a vanguard led largely by vocal, urban youths. The 16 other parties will like to benefit from the dark characterisation of APC and PDP and the increasing quest for a new order.

But it seems it is the candidate of the Labour Party, Mr. Peter Obi, that is positioned to benefit the most from the expanding movement that also includes some activists and celebrities, politicians keen on breaking the stranglehold of the two dominant parties, and some disgruntled and alienated members of APC and PDP.
While the campaigns of the new guard will lean heavily on the angst in the land, the assumption that indeed a majority of voters across the country are sold on their preferred candidate, and the numerical significance of the youth population, the old older will not just roll over.

They will rely on their spread, structure and deep pockets and on their institutional memories of running political campaigns. APC and PDP will also go beyond just attacking each and spare some quality time for Obi. They will attempt to fracture his growing support base and explore the hypothesis that the youth and other constituencies are not as homogenous as assumed. They will put intense searchlight on Obi’s record in office and his utterances to reduce his appeal.
Those in Obi’s camp will project him as the most suitable person for the time and market him on competence, youthfulness, prudence and integrity. Obi and his supporters will devote special effort to savage the APC and its candidate. It is unlikely that Obi will attack PDP or its presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, given that he was in the same party just a few months ago and he was Atiku’s running mate in 2019.

But the same should not be expected from his supporters, especially the online band.
The battle between those stylised as old and new will likely generate the most heat this campaign season. This does not mean the other contests—between APC and the rest and between APC and PDP—will be tame either.

The contests will be heightened not just because of the enormity of the challenges facing the country but also because of the eagerness of the political actors across the stylised divides and their supporters to settle the question about agency and power. Many variables will be pressed into service both directly and indirectly, including religion and region, lies and fake news, ridicule and demonisation.
The advertised commitments of the candidates and the parties about running clean and issue-based campaigns will be tested. So will be the willingness of the electorate and the larger populace in ensuring that the combatants and their supporters engage themselves according to the established rules of the game and in a manner that does not compound Nigeria’s current challenges. What is at stake is much beyond who wins the argument.

That is the more reason why critical stakeholders must exercise their agency, and actively too, especially by insisting on a campaign based on concrete policy ideas and by judiciously interrogating the proposals by all parties.

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