ABUJA (AFP) – Nigeria’s Senate has voted to move up general elections to January, pressuring President Goodluck Jonathan’s ruling party to resolve a split between the mainly Christian south and majority Muslim north.
The House of Representatives must still approve the new election rules after the Senate decided on Wednesday to change the constitution to allow for a January vote in the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter.
Senators voted through a proposal to hold the general election “not earlier than 150 days and not later than 120 days before the expiration of the term of office,” of either the president or a state governor.
The current constitutional rules state that polls must be held between 30 and 60 days before the new president’s term begins. Presidents take office on May 29.
On Thursday, the head of Nigeria’s electoral commission said a possible timeframe to hold the election would be between January 8 and 15 if the constitutional changes become final.
Attahiru Jega said that would allow “for effective preparations and possible runoff elections”.
Jonathan, who took over following the death of president Umaru Yar’Adua in May, is widely expected to run, but he has not officially declared his candidacy.
He could benefit from a short campaign period since his opponents — including from his own party — will have less time to potentially field candidates.
There has been a dispute within the ruling People’s Democratic Party over whether it will back Jonathan.
The party, in power since 1999, has traditionally alternated its backing between candidates from the north and south as a way of smoothing over ethnic, religious and social divides in Africa’s most populous nation.
According to some, the party should back another northern candidate since Yar’Adua did not finish out his term. Jonathan is a Christian from the oil-rich south.
The party’s primaries are expected to be held by October.
The shifting of the election date will also allow more time for legal disputes related to the poll to be settled before the new president takes office.
Nigeria has a long history of electoral fraud, and disputes over the April 2007 poll are still pending in courts. The election was judged deeply flawed by observers.