Could Nigeria’s presidential election require a runoff?

On 25 February, Nigeria holds its elections for president, house, and senate. The country uses single-seat plurality elections, but with an important qualification in the case of the federal presidency. The winner of that contest must have not only a nationwide plurality of votes, but also meet a “distribution” requirement: earn at least a quarter of the vote in at least two thirds of the federal entities (consisting of 36 states and a capital territory).

If the first-round plurality candidate fails to meet the distribution qualification, then there is a runoff. The two candidates in a runoff would be the plurality candidate and the other candidate who wins the most states with a majority of the vote. Note that if there are three or more serious candidates, with regional bases, the runoff opponent might not be the one with the second highest votes in the first round.

Nigeria this year has precisely the situation that could lead to a runoff and possibly not with the top-two candidates: There are at least three candidates who might be considered “serious” and all exhibit Nigeria’s typical tendency towards regional concentration of support. See Africa Elects. Nigeria has not previously had a runoff.

Polling is apparently sparse, but shows Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) in the lead–some recent polls show him far ahead. I am not sure how reliable Nigerian polls are, let alone whether they effectively capture state-by-state trends. The next two candidates after Obi appear close in polling: Bola Tinubu (All Progressive Congress, APC) and Atiku Abubakar (Peoples Democratic Party, PDP). A fourth candidate, Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) also has regionally concentrated support. Given the distribution requirement, even a candidate with little chance of winning might deprive a more nationally popular candidate of 25% of the vote in some states or of a majority in enough states to affect runoff qualifications should there be a second round.

The APC is the incumbent president’s party, and the PDP has provided the winning ticket in various past elections (including its presidential candidate this year as vice president in the past). Obi was the PDP’s vice presidential candidate in the last national election, in 2019, with Abubakar at the top of the ticket.

As far as congress is concerned, at the 2019 election the APC won 202 seats and the PDP 126 in the House of Representatives, which has 360 seats. In the 109-seat Senate, the APC won 63 and the PDP 44. It seems likely that this year’s results will be more fragmented, but given the use of single-seat plurality in both houses, obviously it depends entirely on the parties’ relative regional concentration in the voting.

Nigeria uses a pure presidential system.

Presidential elections with “distribution” or with ranked choice

In preparation for a grad seminar next week, I am re-reading Donald Horowitz’s 1990 article, “Comparing Democratic Systems”* in which he argues against Juan Linz’s critique of presidentialism as being too much of a “winner takes all” form of democracy.

In the piece, he speaks approvingly of alternatives to plurality and majority forms of direct executive election, and mentions the rules in Nigeria and Sri Lanka, which he says encourage the winner to appeal broadly. This has been on my mind anyway, with the surprise result in Sri Lanka’s presidential election yesterday. It is not clear to me how much these various cases of more complex rules for direct election have mattered in practice.

On Nigeria, Horowitz says:

To be elected, a president needed a plurality plus distribution. The successful candidate was required to have at least 25 percent of the vote in no fewer than two-thirds of the then-19 states. This double requirement was meant to ensure that the president had support from many ethnic groups. (p. 76)

Subsequently, a similar “distribution” requirement has been built into the presidential election methods of Kenya, where the rule requires 25% of the vote in at least five of the eight provinces. This did not prevent a winner in 1992 from having only 36% of the national votes. Nor did it prevent a serious crisis over the 2007 election.

I believe there is, or was, a distribution requirement in Indonesia, although the IFES description of the system in 2014 just says two-round majority.

The Sri Lanka system as described by IFES:

Under the contingent vote system, voters may rank up to three candidates. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round of counting, ballots whose first ranking are eliminated candidates are redistributed to the next-ranked candidates on those ballots. The winner is the candidate with the most votes after this second round of counting.

(I gather that means that third preferences come into play only for voters whose first two choices were both eliminated? As I understand it, all candidates but the top two are immediately eliminated when no one has a majority.)

Horowitz says about the adoption of this system in 1978:

It was expected that presidential candidates would build their majority on the second and third choices of voters whose preferred candidate was not among the top two. This would put ethnic minorities (especially the Sri Lankan Tamils) in a position to require compromise as the price for their second preferences.

It would seem that this motivation has never been realized; in fact, in the just concluded election, the winner did obtain support from Tamils and other minorities–but in the first preferences. Just as if it were a plurality system–or so it seems to me.

I do not think actual second or third preferences have come in to play in any Sri Lankan election, although I can’t claim to know. As for the “distribution” requirements, I wonder if any reader knows of elections in which campaign strategy was seen to be shaped by the rule. Of course, I generally believe rules shape strategy and behavior! But my limited knowledge of these cases does not lead me to be convinced that the outcomes have actually been different from what they would have been under more standard direct election rules.

* Journal of Democracy, Volume 1, Number 4, Fall 1990, pp. 73-79.