Explainer: What are Direct and Indirect Primary Elections?

Sep 27, 2018|Aisha Salaudeen

If everything goes as planned, Nigerians will go to the polls early next year to decide who they want in various elective positions. But before then, political parties have to conduct their own primary elections. 

A primary election is a mini-election where a political party elects its preferred candidate to run for public office under its platform. During the primaries, parties go through an elimination process where they trim down a pool of nominees to just one person who will represent them at the general polls.

Nigeria’s 2010 Electoral Act mandates that all political parties hold primaries. In the build-up to the 2015 elections, Muhammadu Buhari won the All Progressive Congress (APC) presidential primaries, emerging the victor over Atiku Abubakar, Rochas Okorocha and Musa Kwankwaso

This process of picking a representative comes in two forms: direct and indirect. And according to Section 87 of the Electoral Act, both are valid.


What are the types of primary elections?

Direct and Indirect.

In an indirect primary election, party members elect delegates who in turn elect the party’s candidates on their behalf. Delegates are a democratically elected group of voters elected at party congresses. A congress is a formal meeting or convention between members of a political party. During the congress, registered members of a political party elect these delegates that will represent them at local, state and national congresses.

In a direct primary election, registered members of the party just vote for who they want to be the flag-bearer of their party. Unlike with the indirect primaries, no delegates are involved, party members choose their representatives through polls like they would in a general election.

The APC in Osun State recently adopted direct primaries in choosing their preferred candidate, Gboyega Oyetola, for the gubernatorial election rescheduled for today. Every card-carrying member of the party participated in the process of nominating the flag bearer for the APC.


Which is better?

Even though the 2010 Electoral Act allows for either of the two processes, Nigeria’s major political parties opt for indirect primaries.

This has been criticised for being easier to manipulate by party leaders and delegates. And even though the vote does not bind delegates to support a particular candidate, they are sometimes expected to align with constituency or party. However, delegates have been known to disregard the wishes of the delegation they are supposed to represent and vote as they wish.

The criticism of direct primaries is that they cost too much. A lot more planning and organisation is required, and direct primaries are still also vulnerable to manipulation.

For example, a candidate can get people to purchase party membership cards just to partake in the primaries. Worse, members of other parties can intentionally join a particular party in order to vote for a weaker candidate at the primaries and maximise the chances of their own party winning the general election.

These issues are not restricted to Nigeria and afflict primary elections in countries with similar political systems like India and the United States. Citizens do not pay as much attention to primaries even though the method of selection can determine the choices available on the ballot paper at the general elections.

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