Democracy provides the opportunities for the people to freely exercise their voting rights in the selection of representatives who govern them. Democracy depends on parties to survive, since the structure of elections right from citizens participation to candidates’ selection and presentation of competing political programmes is done by political parties. It is on this note that political parties occupy a special place in the democratic equation.
Critical examination of Nigerian political parties from 1999 to date reveals that Nigerian political parties did not possess basic features of political parties such as ideology, party manifestoes, likeminded people as well as viable opposition party. All parties are engaged in intra party conflict rather than embarked on programmes that would benefit the masses. The result of undemocratic conduct of political parties such as candidate’s imposition, unclear manifestoes, gave rise to assassination that portrayed Nigeria as one of the riskiest nations in the world.
The struggle for democratic government in Nigeria during military era is almost the same as anti-colonial struggle. This is because both the promoter and supporter of democracy in Nigeria are highly committed and dedicated before the transition comes to reality. In the process of achieving it, many of them lost their lives, some were even detained while those who escaped the two went on exile. Now that democracy becomes Nigerian “Public good”, credible institutions are required to defend the system.
A political party can simply be defined as organized group of people with at least roughly similar political aims and opinions that seek to influence the public, policy by getting its candidate elected to public office. The existence of political parties according to this definition must be based on the principles of promoting national interest. This is because political parties are often expected to have their membership spread across the country. This explain, for instance, why Nigerian constitution required parties to reflect federal character before they can be registered.
Political Parties are integral part of the process of institutionalizing democracy. Thus, political parties according to IDEA (2000) produce the candidates, set the parameters of issues and agenda within which elections are to be held and they are expected to perform these duties periodically. The functions of an ideal political party can thus be summarized as:
(i) Stimulating the citizenry to take a greater interest in election and activities of activities of government. (ii) Defining political issues of the day and sharpen the choice between alternative paths. (iii) Presenting candidates who are committed to announce position with respect to issues. (iv) Majority party provides basis upon which government can be operated. (v) Accepting responsibility to govern upon winning election.
As a result of these functions, it can be inferred that: Political parties remain important if not essential instruments for representing political constituencies and interests, aggregating demands and preferences, recruiting and socializing new candidate for office; organizing the electoral competition for power, crafting policy alternatives, setting the policy-making agenda, forming effective governments, and integrating groups and individuals into the democratic process.
Juxtaposing the above highlighted functions of an ideal political party to what we have in Nigeria, its obvious that we are far from getting it right. Citizens’ participation at the primary elections is not without some level of biasness and some elements of “what’s in for me” which influence their choice to a great extent.
In order to perform these functions positively, political party should be guided by distinctive ideology which will sell them to a core set of electorates and distinguish them clearly from other political parties. At this juncture, ideology becomes important feature of political parties.
Party ideology, is the moral systems that enshrine the sanctity of contact and promise between them (parties) and electorate; it constitutes the political doctrine from which a programme of political actions emanates and on which basis citizens choose how they will like to be ruled.
Ideology is very important aspect of politics, not only by serving as a cognitive structure for looking at society generally and providing a guide to individual action and judgment, but as a powerful instrument of conflict management, self-identification, popular mobilization and legitimization.
Right from the formation period, fourth republic parties are the composition of people from diverse opinion. Similarly, the activities of godfather in political parties render the parties ineffective in the process of discharging their responsibilities. These godfather impact negatively on democracy by restricting citizen participation as a voter or candidate.
Also, in an undemocratic way, they imposed candidates’ right from local level to national level, on agreement that they surrender the state treasury to them. These kinds of agreement explain why the dividend of democracy becomes mirage in our society. Thus, democracy has no meaning once it failed to improve on the life of citizens.
The trend of internal crisis within the part since 1999 shows that parties in Nigeria spend more time on reconciliatory process, than on a programme that would benefit the electorates. It is equally deduced that failure of political parties to embraced dialogue in resolving their internal crisis is antithetical to democratic consolidation. Since the principal tenet of democracy is the possibility it offers to resolve crisis through dialogue, without recourse to violence, even when they are irksome.
The undemocratic conduct of political parties also contributes in no small measure to the political violence and political assassination in Nigeria. As party abstained from healthy intra-party rivalry in the process of candidates’ selection, the venue of party primaries were mostly turned into violence gathering.
In Benue state, for instance, fight erupted in Aliade town, on 9 December 2006, after PDP allegedly reversed the result of the state assembly primary, replacing the winner, Tsetim Ayarger with Ashema Chado.
On the issue of opposition, the current number of political parties, suggesting a more democratic polity, a widening of political space and more options for voters. But most of these parties are composed of individuals whose personal interests are threatened by the existing governments and thus decided to join the opposition party.
The existing opposition’s party in Nigeria today lacks the integrity to stick to their stance on some salient political issues as it affects the citizenry. The priorities of all these parties is what they will gains in politics. Opposition parties in Nigerian democracy remained ineffective due to their failure to form coalitions that will give a strong opposition to the ruling party them and obey the rule of the game for people to enjoy the dividend of democracy, scholars emphasized the need for alternative policy in Nigeria.
If ruling politicians are failing the people, it is the responsibility of the opposition to step in, in a credible, robust, articulate, clear and coherent manner, to provide alternative policy options on how to deal with the challenges that confront the country and the majority of the Nigerian people.
Once the elections are over, the interest of common man in no longer in the opposition party’s agenda. They will be struggling to be part a unity government initiated by ruling party. Members of Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), after 2007 general elections for example, abandon their party and presidential candidate to be part of the Unity government introduced by the then ruling party (PDP).
Conclusively, with respect to the conduct of political parties since 1999, parties are not engaged in the issues that will consolidate democracy in Nigeria. It is highly recommended that all political parties should be reformed. The area of reformation should include the procedure for admitting new cross carpeting members. The transparency in the procedure of selecting party flag bearers as well conducting direct primary election. And a well-designed and meaningful party manifestoes should be developed by all parties. By so doing, the parties outside government can criticizes the policy of ruling party base on their programme.