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Nurturing emerging Nigerian two-party system 

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Professor Attahiru Jega, erstwhile Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission and an authority in comparative politics, was spot on when he said that a two-party system only evolves, it cannot be imposed. In a society where everyone is a political scientist, not least because they have read newspapers, the professional intervention by Jega should now put to rest the assumption that a two-party system can be manufactured from some political factory. With books hardly available in our universities, I intend here to restate the theories that have been advanced to explain the two-party system as a phenomenon in democratic politics.

Such an academic exercise, I believe, will be helpful to our political science students with interest in the study of political parties, and also the policy makers in their search for the appropriate party system for Nigeria. Although a two-party system, desirable as it may or may not be, is a rare feature among democracies, it has attracted a great deal of analysis and a considerable number of explanations, helpfully grouped by Frank Sorauf into four main categories: institutional, dualist, cultural and consensual. The institutional theorists, best represented by E.E. Shattsneider and Maurice Duverger, argue that single-member, plurality electoral systems result in two-party systems” unlike multi-member constituencies and proportional representation” and that an executive president acts as “a catalyst for coalition among interests that would normally be at loggerheads”. This contention is supported by Clinton Rossiter as a result of his comparative analysis of elections in the German Republic of 1919-33. In 1930 the system of proportional representation produced 10 parties with 19 or more seats in the Reichstag, but since the presidential election turned the nation into one vast constituency, all the parties were forced into three, two coalitions and the Communists.

The dualist theorists, among whom is V.O. Key, postulate the dichotomy of interests in American society. From historical perspectives, they point out that prior to the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, the country was divided into two camps along economic and political lines, and that thereafter the division over the nature of constitutional government presented two opposing schools: The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Appraising the British experience, George Kousoulas points out that political groupings were initially confined to members of the aristocratic elite and revolved around religious and dynastic issues: “the 17th century Puritans, organised in opposition to the Crown and the so-called royal prerogative were a precursor of modern political parties”. Their two major political parties of today, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, still exhibit the historical pro-and anti-monarchical tendencies.

The cultural theorists, however, remind us that political maturity is a major determinant of the two-party system. As Sorauf points out, the Americans and the British “are willing to make the kinds of compromise necessary to bring heterogeneous groups of voters into two political parties”. Rossiter emphasises that America’s two major parties are “creatures of compromise, coalitions of interest in which principle is muted and often even silenced”. Political maturity, for the purpose of clarity, includes the competence of election managers as well as the general behaviour of politicians and the voting public.

Finally, there are the social consensus theorists who explain the successful operation of various two-party systems by the absence of irreconcilable ideological divisions, even though the leading spokesmen may have adopted dogmatic positions over certain issues, such as the economy, the nature of the constitution, and even the question of religion. Leslie Lipson argues that the secondary nature of divisive interests among Americans makes the case for compromise easy. As echoed by Duverger “…a two-party system cannot be maintained if one of the parties seeks to destroy the established order. At least, it cannot endure unless the party remains always in opposition”.

We now have a two-party system in Nigeria. In spite of the avalanche of political parties, real competition is between the All Progressives Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party. Recent elections in Ekiti and Osun states confirm this assumption. Nigerians also seem to be getting more and more sophisticated in their evaluation of the performances of those that govern them, more than one could say of them in the past. While improvements are sought for the future, it must be said emphatically that a two-party system thrives in a culture of tolerance and acceptance by political gladiators that they all have equal loyalty to the sustenance of the democratic order.


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