This is self-evident: the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), in this general election, is fighting the political battle of its life. For the first time since 1998/1999, the political behemoth of our clime and time is clearly flustered, rattled to its core. With cultivated calm giving way to undisguised panic and supreme confidence displaced by anger, frustration and desperation, PDP has launched a scorched-earth campaign that makes it look more like a despairing challenger than the surefooted ruling party that we used to know.

When PDP was in its prime, its chieftains used to boast about how they would be in power for at least 60 years. They bragged about how PDP would become Nigeria’s PRI, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the political party that once ruled Mexico for 71 years at a stretch. The reference to PRI was not totally self-indulgent. In ideology, outlook and in the eagerness to press state apparatuses to political advantage, PDP seemed patterned after the Mexican party.

For one, PRI and PDP share the same colours, arranged in the same order: green, white and red. PRI was the archetypal state party, with totalising influence that made the Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, describe it as the ‘perfect dictatorship’ and with election results that, in PRI’s heydays, implausibly hovered between 80 and 100 per cent of total votes cast! At some point, PDP was beginning to grow into the PRI profile, with control of the presidency and of more than two-thirds of the states, and with a near absolute majority in the National Assembly in a country which at a time had about 50 political parties.

Until the year 2000, PRI had won 12 presidential elections in a row and PDP, its self-adopted Nigerian offspring, seemed similarly unstoppable. But not anymore. For the first time in its 17-year history, PDP stands a very good chance of not winning the presidential poll. With good luck, PDP may still survive this scare. But even if it does, and except the opposition collapses after the election, it is not inconceivable that the party’s days of unchallenged dominance are surely numbered.

At the moment, PDP has found itself in a very strange and unusual place. And because this once undisputed and undefeated champion is not used to being challenged punch-for-punch, it is fighting badly, appearing frantic, coming across as seriously desperate, and looking mortally scared. How did the almighty PDP come to this pass?

I think three factors have conspired to put PDP on the ropes. Before going into that, let me say that despite misgivings against PDP, the party has made some contributions to political development in Nigeria. I will mention two not-so-obvious areas. More than we give it credit for, PDP has served as a stabilising and unifying force in the country both on account of its size and its spread. The founders of PDP had envisioned a big party, broad enough to blur our fault-lines, expansive enough to house different political tendencies, and strong enough to square up to any destabilising force, including the military. Even when it sometimes poses risks to the polity and has recently lapsed into divisive politics, PDP has largely delivered on this score.

PDP’s other important contribution is that, at different times, it has provided opposition to itself, thereby sparing the country the possible dictatorial excesses of a dominant party in a multi-party democracy. Even when other factors are at play, a PDP-dominated federal legislature has not shied from checking the executive from same party and indeed played a major part in truncating President Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure-elongation agenda. By allowing internal dissent, PDP is perhaps more democratic than the other parties and has, in this way at least, helped in strengthening our democracy.

That said, let’s return to why PDP is not approaching this election with the usual certainty. The first reason is the gradual but consistent weakening of PDP from within and outside. Partly on account of being a big tent, PDP has always been a house divided against itself, weakened by intense contestations for control and positions, and with limited investment in genuine reconciliation. From the outside, PDP has had a terrible
image for a long time. Whether fairly or unfairly, PDP has been twinned with all that ails our democracy: underperformance, impunity, corruption, rigging etc. As said above, this could be an unfair association, but PDP has done little to change this widespread negative perception.

But the combination of internal dissension and unflattering public perception has rendered the party vulnerable over time. A major marker of this vulnerability was in 2011 when the strategists of President Goodluck Jonathan had to distance the candidate from his own party and had to creatively market him as different from and better than his party. That delicate distancing worked magic but this was also an acknowledgement that PDP had more or less become damaged goods in popular imagination. This should have worried the PDP chieftains and pointed them towards critical post-election work. It is not clear anyone paid much attention to this critical task.

This leads us to the second factor that has put PDP at risk: the diminution of the Jonathan mystique. Jonathan’s capacity to compensate for PDP’s perceived deficits has been diminished because Jonathan, in a strange proclivity for scoring own goals, has consistently eroded his own fanatical base in the last four years. At the moment, the bad-party/good-candidate narrative has lost its sheen. A sizeable number of those who ecstatically bought into the “breath-of-fresh-air” line in 2011 started feeling deceived six months down the line and remain disappointed and are either on the fence or have switched allegiance.

For this group, and even some neutrals, there is a long list of disappointments, including: the manner in which subsidy on petrol was removed on 1st January 2012, the demonization of the Occupy Nigeria movement, the handling of the NIS recruitment tragedy, the ‘I don’t-give-a-damn’ and ‘stealing-is-not-corruption’ statements, the state pardon of Chief Diepreye Alamieyesiegha, the subsidy scandals, the bullet-proof cars, the unaccounted oil money, the embarrassing gaffes from the first family, the interference in the Governors’ Forum election, the growing state of insecurity, the handling of the case of the abducted Chibok girls and the harassment of and attack on the #BringBackOurGirls campaigners etc. Overtime, all these have calcified into overwhelming negative emotions that put the 2015-Jonathan in a weaker stead than the 2011-Jonathan, coincidentally at a time the predicted fracturing of his party has come to pass.

The last factor that has put PDP in a strange spot is the emergence of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and of General Muhammadu Buhari as its standard-bearer. APC has reasonable national spread and strong political structures in zones with high percentage of registered voters. Buhari, whose massive following had been restricted to just the north, is now enjoying some serious look-in in some areas and among demographic groups previously uninterested in him. The convergence of these two developments has significantly altered the field of play and provided a viable alternative to politicians looking for a new home and to voters fatigued with PDP’s 16-year rule or disenchanted with Jonathan.

In sum, PDP’s previous competitive advantage is now threatened by the coming together of a weakened and depleted party, a diminished incumbent and a formidable opposition. The behemoth has tried to fight back in different ways, some reasonable, some wrong-headed. Initially, it re-organised, embarked on reconciliation and counter-poaching, took the battle to APC’s strongholds and commenced aggressive marketing of the achievements of its candidate. And for a while, it worked and PDP regained some lost ground. But PDP also expected and even predicted APC to fracture after its presidential primaries. That did not happen.

PDP’s reaction to the failure of APC to fall apart and the emergence of Buhari (who gained extra bounce by picking Professor Yemi Osinbajo as his running mate) is to go on a feverish attack, hoping that something will stick. That may well happen and that may well change the tide. But my sense is that despite all the aggressive investments in history lessons, gratuitous insults, ethnic/religious profiling, morbid obsessions and threats of fire and brimstone, most people are looking at the two candidates comparatively, not idealistically, and have made up their minds on who they think will better serve them. I may be wrong.


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