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Saturday 11 April 2015

Ballot Boxing

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 8th April 2015

Nigeria, Northland and New South Wales went to the polls recently. How were LGBT interests dealt with in each jurisdiction?

First, Northland. The northernmost New Zealand electorate was won by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, with a four thousand vote majority over National Party candidate Mark Osborne. This was undoubtedly assisted by a pragmatic choice by Labour leader Andrew Little, enabling Peters to harvest traditionally Labour-leaning tactical voters and building the case for prospective three-way coalition talks in 2017. It also dented John Keys' formerly resilient reputation through defeat in a seat that has traditionally been centre-right in allegiance, albeit with a substantial Maori population. At a guess, Peters mobilised that traditional non-voting bloc, disaffected National voters annoyed at the lack of economic development, and New Zealand First's traditional elderly voting bloc. One hopes that the nature of the electorate forces him to modify his populist protest orientation and drives him toward pragmatism and an increased focus on opposition to free market policies, abandoning its pandering to religious social conservatism. There are also questions about the overall stability of his caucus. It will be interesting to see whether the centre-right blogosphere now resorts to intensive investigation of the abrupt dumping of Andrew Williams, the welcome if sudden departure of the obnoxious Asenati Lole-Taylor and the question of the relationship between Peters and his deputy, Tracey Martin.

Second, Nigeria. The antigay West African state has had four consecutive elections since the end of its most recent military dictatorship in 1999. It was meant to be held in February 2015, but had to be postponed due to the Museveni regime's continued incompetence in dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency in several Muslim majority Northern Nigerian states until late March 2015. If incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan wins, it will be his last term, thankfully, due to Nigerian presidential term limit legislation. It hasn't been too popular within his own People's Democratic Party and has destabilised the parliamentary party as a consequence. Sectarian religious violence, whether Christian or Muslim, is a perennial problem across Nigeria.

Jonathan and the PDP were opposed by an "All Progressives Coalition" consisting of four parties- the Action Congress of Nigeria, the All Nigeria Peoples Party, the All Progressives Grand Alliance and the Congress for Progressive Change. However, its current leader (and now Nigerian president-elect) is a former Nigerian military dictator, Muhammadu Buhari (72). Moreover, the All-Progressive Coalition was formed shortly before the current election and there are reportedly concerns about its stability within Nigeria. Buhari was one of the leaders of the military coup held in 1983 against then democratically elected Nigerian President Shehu Shagari. Detention without trial, repressive state censorship, imprisonment of dissidents, and harsh anti-drug policies were all rife during the sixteen year dictatorship that followed. If elected, Buhari says that he will respect Nigeria's current democratic institutions, even given this dire track record while involved within the prior military dictatorship as a major general. Given his rigorous anti-corruption campaign, Buhari is popular amongst some Nigerians, but has also promised to introduce rigorous Islamist sharia law. That may alienate fundamentalist Protestant elements in Southern Nigeria, who have undertaken sectarian violence against Southern Nigerian Muslims in the past, although they have reciprocated in kind.

There have been questions about the competence and independence of the Independent National Election Commission, charged with overseeing federal and state Nigerian elections. It has been criticised for incompetence when it came to timely distribution and delivery of voters identification cards and the possibility of partisan post-election violence is also a cause for concern, as is the continuing, unresolved anti-regime conservative Islamist Boko Haram insurgency, and its capture and forcible detention of several Nigerian schoolgirls amidst reports of their consequent arranged marriages. Hundreds of people died after post-election riots in 2011. The Nigerian Womens Platform for a Peaceful Election publicised women's issues during the elections, while southwest Niger Delta imams questioned Buhari's commitment to democratic values given his military past, should Goodluck Jonathan lose. Overseas, the Economistsupported Buhari as the "least worst" option. Polls suggested a tight electoral race, although there is always the threat of corruption and incompetence in this context, as noted above. For LGBT voters, there's nothing to choose between either Jonathan or Buhari, both of whom espouse religious social conservative positions on LGBT concerns. Buhari and his entourage voted for Nigeria's controversial antigay legislation, cited in the paragraph below.

In January 2014, Goodluck Jonathan signed Nigeria's repressive "Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act" into law after it had been passed by the Nigerian federal House of Representatives and Senate. The draconian legislation prohibits lesbian and gay relationships, wedding ceremonies, political organisations and provides for fourteen year prison sentences if these strict antigay policies are violated. The Nigerian police made a rapid list of 168 potential detainees, of which thirty eight are currently detained. The legislation also mandates imprisonment for straight allies of LGBT rights if they 'obstruct' or 'withhold' evidence about LGBT activities related to this legislation. Moreover, Northern and Southern Nigerian states both have criminal codes that penalise both lesbians and gay men for lesbianism and 'sodomy', as well as gay men for "gross indecency." Transvestism is also illegal in Nigeria. Repression has been undertaken against lesbian and gay Christian members of the House of Rainbow Metropolitan Community Church, whose members have been assaulted. HIV prevention programmes exist in Lagos but are hampered by the continuing prohibition of male homosexuality and endemic Nigerian homophobia. Given the depressing description above, it is unlikely that even if there is a change of regime, little will change for the better in Nigeria. Indeed, Boko Haram bombings occurred in two Nigerian electorates and there was considerable voter frustration at the slowness of the electoral process.

Surprisingly, however, Muhammadu Buhari won the election, defeating the hapless and incompetent Goodluck Jonathan, by about three million votes for the presidency. This marks the first time that an incumbent president has been defeated in a Nigerian election. Thus far, Peoples Democratic Party supporters have accepted the situation. At present, it seems that returns from individual electorates are still being processed and only a fraction of Nigerian Legislative Assembly and Senate seats (elected by First Past the Post) have been declared. As is predictable, the Peoples Democratic Party still seem to hold a significant proportion of seats in both, perhaps enough to win a majority- which may lead to gridlock and yet another military coup several years from now.

In New South Wales, the Liberal National Coalition is still in government. New South Wales uses the unproportional preferential voting option to elect its lower House of Representatives and the proportional representation Single Transferable Vote electoral system for its upper Legislative Council. In the House of Representatives, the Coalition holds sixty one seats while the ALP holds twenty three. In its Legislative Council, the Coalition doesn't have a majority and is faced by the ALP and Greens, as well as representatives of the Shooters and Fishers Party and the fundamentalist Christian Democratic Party, both of which have two MLAs each. During the current term of state parliamentary previous Coalition NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell was forced to leave office due to giving misleading information to the Independent Commission Against Corruption within the state, to be replaced by incumbent Coalition Premier Mike Baird. Similarly, ALP NSW Leader of the Opposition John Robertson quit after revelations linking him to mentally ill Muslim gunman Man Haris Monis in December 2014, to be replaced by current incumbent Luke Foley, who has recently changed his stance on marriage equality to supportive. Most opinion polls have the Liberal Party in the lead by an eight to twelve point margin and Baird's party is widely expected to retain state office, perhaps even by a comfortable margin. Other than marriage equality, New South Wales has an excellent record on LGBT issues, even slightly in advance of New Zealand when it comes to transgender-inclusive antidiscrimination laws. although there are religious exemptions for its adoption legislation that apply to religious adoption providers.

In the event, the Liberal/National Coalition retained power for once, with a thirteen seat majority over the ALP and the Greens, but had to cede sixteen seats in the lower house Legislative Assembly. In the Legislative Council upper house however, it may find it difficult to pass new legislation, given that they still do not have an operational majority there. And so, as the Fairfax newspapers have noted, the Liberal/National Coalition are still in control of Australia's most populous state. However, does this prove anything about the ultimate viability of the Abbott administration? It would be foolish to relapse into the ineptitude and extremism of the previous few years, although one does wonder whether Abbott's administration is pragmatic and flexible enough to draw lessons from the Coalition's New South Wales victory, or whether this is a short term advantage.

Craig Young - 8th April 2015

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