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April 15, 2011

Large Turnout for Nigeria's Presidential Poll

by Julia Ritchey

Millions of Nigerians are casting their ballots for a second time this month, this time in presidential elections that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is favored to win.

Long lines of voters are packing voting booths across Nigeria to cast their votes in Saturday's presidential polls, which pits incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan against a crowded field of a dozen other candidates.

A morning bombing in the northeastern city of Maiduguri cast a shadow over the start of the polling, but no fatalities or injuries were reported.  Similar bomb attacks took place on the eve of last week's legislative elections in an attempt to intimidate voters, but officials said otherwise the process has gone smoothly.

At stake is whether Africa's most populous nation, with 150 million people, can hold credible and open polls. Security has been tightened across the country, as Nigeria hopes to finally put a stop to the violence and fraud that have plagued its democratic elections since the end of military rule in 1999.

President Goodluck Jonathan, the former vice president, is running for a full term after coming to power less than a year ago upon the death of his predecessor. His closest competition is the 68-year-old former military ruler, Mohammadu Buhari, who is representing the Congress for Progressive Change party.

Buhari has been running on a strong anti-corruption platform and draws his support from the country's predominantly Muslim north. Jonathan, a Christian, draws support from the south-the elections reflecting the manifest ethnic and religious divisions in the country.

Africa Director of the Ansari Center, J. Peter Pham, is in Nasarawa state just outside of the capital Abuja as an international elections observer. He says the turnout is at least twice as large as in last week's parliamentary elections.

"In the urban centers, some of them [the crowds] are far larger than what were anticipated. I was at several polling places this morning, where there were literally six or 7,000 people supposed to vote in one place," said Pham.

Pham says the challenge will be whether elections officials can get everyone in to vote before the end of the day. Those registered to vote had to validate their registration between 8 and noon and collect a ticket before even being able to cast a ballot. The 120,000 polling stations were theoretically supposed to only handle 300 or so voters at a time. Yet despite the long lines, Pham says people still seem upbeat.

"There's an atmosphere and expectation of optimism that this is going to be much better than the 2007 election," he added.

The election is a crucial one for Jonathan and his party, the ruling People's Democratic Party, who hopes to retain the nation's highest office, as it has for more than a decade.

The PDP took a beating in parliamentary polls last week, maintaining its majority in the National Assembly, but losing several high-profile races in the southwest and north.

A PDP party official in the southern Niger Delta state expressed optimism that Jonathan would win.

"The area is calm, we have no problems in our unit at all. And I know we are winning the elections, so there's no problem around," said the official.

A Nigerian political analyst Dapo Oyewole says the PDP's losses have galvanized the party to campaign more aggressively in order to stay in power.  

"I think we're hearing the Nigerian voting public saying, 'We've had enough of this,' or  'We're not satisfied with this.' And this message I think will be the writing on the wall for the PDP to pull up their boot straps," said Oyewole.

To avoid a runoff, President Jonathan must win a simple majority as well as 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria's 36 states.

The presidential election is the second in a three-tier general election being held in April. State polls will be held next Saturday.