By Dakuku Peterside
The political evolution of party systems in the world follows a binary trajectory. We see this political evolutionary trend in most democracies where although multiple parties exist, two dominant parties emerge, dominate the political space, and compete as alternate power wielders that form governments as government and opposition at the centre. These two parties appear either by subsuming other minor parties or controlling a more significant part of the electorate through broader appeal.
Advanced democracies have shown that party systems often evolve to fit in with a natural affinity to binary options. Everywhere globally, the electorates (educated or not) seem lazy to contemplate and analyse multiple possibilities, and they prefer to make decisions based on two defined options, either A or B.
Most matured and stable democracies of the world have binary party options. Labour versus conservative parties in the UK and the US have Democrats versus Republicans. Kenya has two grand alliances or coalitions- Azimio la Umoja Coalition and Kenya Kwanza, and two major political parties, the Orange Democratic Party of Kenya (ODM), whose party leader is Hon Raila Odinga and the United Democratic Alliance, whose Party leader is Hon Dr William Ruto. Nigeria, at various times, has followed this trajectory of binary party options: NRC and SDP (1991-1992), PDP and APP (1999-2003) and APC and PDP (2014-date).
The attraction to binary party system options in most democracies stems from its merits to the democratic experience. Primarily, it reasonably discourages discrimination against minorities and encourages integration in the political ecosystem. The two-party system hardly allows for ethnic colouration of the party since people from various ethnic groups, religions and ideologies pull together in the party.
Besides, it moderates animosities and ethnic jingoism. Also, the fact that these two parties have relatively equal strength is good for competition. Competition for power is foundational to democracy, and it is anchored in the belief that with stiff competition, good leaders emerge that meet the aspiration of the electorate, without which they lose power in the next circle of the election.
It also has its demerits. In less matured democracies, it sometimes leaves the electorate with only two options with no other option viable in the power struggle, and this is even worse when it turns out that the two parties are sides of the same coin and there is no credible alternative. The two parties can become oligarchies, controlled by a tiny clique of the political elite to the exclusion of others. This anomaly is our situation in Nigeria now. A coterie of the well-resourced political elite who do not bother much about the alternative views and interests of others outside the mainstream controls the two major parties.
As more persons are getting disgruntled with Nigeria’s political system and political developments, the prospect of a third political force is gathering momentum. A sizable political force is beginning to form with the hope of upsetting the system and creating a new order. Like in other climes, a third force is usually a protest movement, people who are disgruntled and aggrieved coming together not based on ideological considerations or shared vision. But in the Nigerian case, these dissatisfied and discontented people within the two-party systems are conjoining with outside voices within the periphery of the political space to orchestrate a third force movement to challenge existing political orthodoxy.
The current tidal movement resembling a third force may rise from one of either Labour Party, APGA, SDP, ADC, NNPP or PRP Coalition. This groundswell of fringe parties is beginning to form a third force. Some consider it late, but I am afraid I must disagree. There are many reasons why a third force may spring up now and have credible chances of surviving and affecting the political landscape.
The first reason is that many politicians with grassroots support but not favoured by the leadership of the two major parties are frustrated and looking for viable and credible alternative platforms. Besides, there is a general perception that the two major political parties have failed Nigerians in core development programmes, and people are fading up with what they consider party shenanigans and disconnect with grassroots politics and electorates.
The economic hardship is hitting hard, and the people are blaming the two major parties for this situation, given that both have ruled the country at various times without improving the standard of living of people. So, the ground is fertile for a clamour for a third force, but whether the movement is sufficient to create a political storm is yet to be seen. Again the viability of a third force will depend on the internal capacity of the two major parties to self-repair after their presidential primaries.
The possibility of a third force phenomenon gives some Nigerians hope. At least it widens the scope of options for more credible and viable candidates for election, especially given the general feeling that some candidates in the two major parties are not credible enough for the electorate to choose from but are forced on them by the parties.
Also, some of the electorates who are disgruntled with the two main parties and would not have participated in the electoral system have an option of an alternative platform to engage in the elections that may give their vote meaning and not leave them with a sense of wasted votes on parties that cannot win elections. These voters hope that the Third force will be different and meet their expectations. Therefore, a third force will benefit the Nigerian people as it will widen the options and deepen competition with the outcome of a better deal for Nigerians.
Unfortunately, as much as people want the Third Force, the political exigencies and realities may not allow it to change the political or development landscape but can be likened to the changing of furniture of elite dominance in the house. The Third Force is engineered by figments of existing parties with engrained political attitudes and culture that created the two-party system failures and impunities. The same unrepentant elite whose major push for a third force is to have a platform to grab power because they were not allowed such in the two major parties.
The litmus test is this: Is there a politician in the Third Force given a platform in the two main parties to get the power that will decline? So, the third force is neither ideological nor a movement to change the existing political sphere, but a new platform to contest for power by the same politicians disgruntled with the system that did not allow them a platform for power in the main two parties.
Besides, the Third Force will have to overcome barriers to the movement. The first barrier is time, and the 2023 general election is seven months away. What time does the Third Force have to build itself and mount a credible challenge to the big two? The emergence of APC before the 2015 general election came early enough to allow them time to consolidate.
Moreover, APC came as a second force and not a third force. Even then, it took time to form a nationwide structure capable of winning elections in Nigeria. This Third Force has only about seven months to position itself well for the election. Although this is possible to achieve, it will be a mean fit to accomplish.
The second barrier is the financial muscle to fight the election in Nigeria. There is an excessive monetisation of the political space, and elections cost so much in Nigeria. We play money politics in Nigeria, and how can the Third Force raise the war chest to mount a challenge to the big two. The big two parties will outspend the third force and dominate the media sphere and public sphere to the detriment of the Third Force.
The third barrier is the difficulty of the Third Force to have the national spread and national organisation it needs to create political structures to compete in the 2023 election. This problem is made worse by the brief time left for all parties to conduct their primaries and submit lists of candidates to INEC.
The next few months will clearly show the blueprint of the new party systems and players in the political firmament. The role of the Third Force will be apparent. Historically, we know that Third forces either create a political storm in a teacup and eventually disappear after elections or grow to become an alternative force and replace one of the big two as the opposition force, or in rear cases, win elections and form government.
This last situation happens when it is a proper movement that blows away the political firmament through a mass action to change the status quo. Will this be the case in the novel Third Force in Nigeria? I doubt it. But it is not impossible. It is more a function of people’s reaction and acceptance of the third force and a movement for political change than what members of the Third Force do.
I reckon that the possible rearrangement of the political climate occasioned by the Third force in Nigeria will eventually lead to the death of the third force or the end of one of the existing two parties, or a realignment of all existing parties’ structures. But the elite stranglehold on party politics and the entrenched attitude of godfatherism, impunity, lack of ideology, politics of self-interest, intrigues and manoeuvrings will still be dominant.
The electoral pattern that will emerge after the 2023 election will not engineer a sea-change, but it may sow the seed of electoral alignment and realignment that will birth a new political order outside one of the dominant APC or PDP. In absence of ideological appeal of the new coalition, the third force is likely to remain an idea whose time is yet to come. This is the evolutionary nature of the two-party system in Nigeria.