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The protest vote and 2023 elections

  Voting in an election is a right and not a compulsory civic duty. It is not legally binding and no penalty is attached for…


Voting in an election is a right and not a compulsory civic duty. It is not legally binding and no penalty is attached for default, which gives the electorate the freedom to vote or not.  But they have to, because of the compulsory and inevitable consequences that follow the outcomes. And those that finally decided to cast their votes know exactly what they want to achieve, either in the short-run or long run. And it comes in diverse ways.

According to Collinsdictionary.com (2019), a protest vote originated in 1970-75; and it is a vote against the political party “you usually support in order to show disapproval of something they are doing or planning to do”. According to Tutor2.com (2021), protest voting is a situation where people vote in an election to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the selection of a candidate or refusal of the current political system or by a wave of particular anger at the policies of a political party, likely to be in power. They cited several examples of protest voting in the UK, and other places, where smaller political parties took people by surprise, and did a lot better.

Ballotpedia.org (nd) further describes it as “a ballot cast for a candidate with a minimal chance of winning, to register dislike for the other candidates.” Again, it takes a variety of methods and echoes numerous voter motivations, which include political alienation. Polyas.com (nd) also believed that a protest vote is cast in an election or referendum to convey voters’ disapproval of the available options or the political system as a whole. In fact, many of these voters do not expect their chosen candidate to win but do it with the hope that their protest vote will send a strong political message.  They give examples of different forms of protest votes including black, null, spoiled votes, third-party votes, organised protest votes, officially-sanctioned protest votes, and so on. And it comes with different connotations.

Some of the 2023 presidential and National Assembly election results could be described in no better terms than protest votes. Many people described the winning at the Aso Rock Villa polling unit, and that of the FCT, the seat of power, by the Labour Party as a protest vote against the sitting president and the ruling party (APC). Again, it is highly unimaginable for a sitting president to lose his state (Katsina State) to an opposition party in a presidential election. The national chairman of the ruling party losing his own pulling unit, and the state (Nasarawa State) to the Labour Party, and equally losing his own senatorial seat to another political party is a protest vote and a strong political message. This political message seems not to be enough, as the sitting governor of Plateau State, and Director General for the presidential campaign of the ruling party (APC) failed to secure his own state for the party in this election. In fact, he also lost his own senatorial bid to PDP, which speaks volumes in the 2023 presidential and National Assembly elections. In fact, it is a clear departure from the previous instances.

What could also be described as a protest vote also visited the presidential candidate of the ruling party (APC), and now the president-elect, where he lost his own domain, the Bourdillon polling unit, which happens to be in front of his house, and also lost his own stronghold of Lagos State to Labour Party. I called this a protest vote.

The wave of disapproval also travels to Cross River, Benue, and Enugu states where the incumbent governors of APC and PDP lost their senatorial bids in the 2023 election.

Many people see these as protest votes and indications that their citizens were not happy or satisfied with the services they rendered in their different states over the period of seven to eight years in office. It is a clear demonstration of displeasure from the electorate, and even those places that were characterised by all kinds of irregularities.

The two major presidential candidates of PDP and LP believed that the protest vote was cast in their favour, by going to the election tribunal to challenge the victory and claim their mandates. Recall that it was one major political party that usually went to the tribunal to challenge the outcome of the presidential elections for the past 16 years. And the turn of events happened in 2015 when there was no challenge to election results at the tribunal due to the overwhelming victory of the APC, and the PDP presidential candidate conceded defeat. This is not the case in the 2023 election. The uniqueness of the 2023 election is something to reckon with. Many first-time voters came out in numbers to cast their votes to actualise their wishes and aspirations.

Whatever the outcome at the tribunal, it is clear that the people have demonstrated their wishes through the various protest voting, and the desire to make their vote count. It suffices to say that the outcomes at the election tribunal or Supreme Court will definitely affect the people’s expectations regarding the 2023 presidential election. It will further determine the voting patterns of the future elections in Nigeria, to reinforce the issues of protest vote in a different dimension, if the will of the people prevails, or not. Such dimensions that could surface in Nigeria may include abstention, organised protest votes, black, null and spoiled votes, tactical protest votes, and third-party/insurgent party votes, as opined by findlaw.com (2020). This may occur because it is a voluntary exercise, and there is no penalty for voting, especially if the majority of the voters feel cheated. All eyes are on the judiciary to make future elections in Nigeria palatable to avoid the unnecessary in our future electoral processes.


Samuel is the Special Duties Officer, Centre for Social Justice, Abuja.