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LAGOS, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Nigerian elections scheduled for January are almost certain to be pushed back three months to allow organisers more time to prepare, a delay presented as a way to reduce the chaos that has typified previous polls.
However, the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), which has been in charge since the army left power in 1999, is split over its nomination for president, making the race to secure the party ticket more hotly contested than ever before.
President Goodluck Jonathan has put himself forward, but faces opposition from some quarters because of an unwritten PDP agreement that power rotates between the Muslim north and Christian south every two terms.
Under the deal, the next term should go to a northerner but Jonathan is a southerner. [ID:nLDE66Q1EY]
Whether Jonathan secures the PDP ticket -- tantamount to winning the election given his party's electoral dominance -- could have implications for security in the restive Niger Delta oil-producing region and parts of the Muslim north.
It could also affect the passage of key pieces of legislation, including reforms to the energy industry.
Following are some of the factors to watch:
Proposals from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to delay January's vote are with the National Assembly, although there is little detail beyond merely 'April'.
A joint parliamentary committee has demanded a more precise timeline amid concerns the mammoth task of cleaning up voter lists in Africa's most populous nation will not happen in time, leading to pressure for further postponement beyond April.
Countering this highly destabilising possibility, INEC has said the May 29 date for the start of a new administration is "sacrosanct".
The current electoral act, which would have to be changed to accommodate the postponement, foresees staggered parliamentary, presidential and state governorship polls over a period of days or weeks. [ID:nLDE67J1FB]
Although more preparation should lead to a more orderly vote, its proximity to the May 29 deadline increases the likelihood of the inevitable post-election legal wrangling dragging on to overshadow the start of the new administration.
One advantage over 2007 is that many more of the state governors are incumbents seeking second terms, which means the regional votes are likely to be less contentious.
Delay to the elections would give more time for the passage of key legislation overhauling the oil and gas industry.
What to watch:
-- Timetable for delayed election, and its confirmation by the National Assembly. Also key are deadlines for party primaries.
-- Warnings from opposition parties that the vote will not be credible, signalling a likelihood of court challenges.
The PDP has won all three presidential races since the end of military rule just over a decade ago, making Nigeria a virtual one-party state and meaning the winner of the primaries is almost certain to go on to win the polls.
However, there is little PDP consensus about its nominee.
Jonathan has staked his claim, but faces challenges from four northerners -- former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, former vice president Atiku Abubakar, ex-national security adviser Aliyu Gusau and Bukola Saraki, governor of the north-central Kwara state.
If these four take their campaigns down to the wire, the split northern vote would hand Jonathan the party nomination. If, however, they rally behind a single northern candidate, Jonathan could well be ousted.
Whatever the outcome, some parts of Nigerian society will be unhappy.
Jonathan's removal could see his supporters in the Niger Delta launch protests, while his success could stoke resentment among northern youths who have already held small-scale protests.
What to watch:
-- Attempts by northern powerbrokers to unite behind a single candidate to tackle Jonathan.
-- Political violence either in the delta or north.
Shortly before putting himself forward, Jonathan unveiled a multi-billion dollar privatisation plan to try to end the chronic power shortages that bedevil the economy and deter foreign investment [ID:nLDE67P0P0]
Should he win re-election, the reform drive, which also includes overhauling the oil industry and completing a raft of banking reforms, is unlikely to change.
Legislation to restructure the oil and gas sector should be adopted "in a few short weeks", the oil minister said this week, and the OPEC member plans an oil licensing round this year. Delays to the election buys time for both.
The licensing round and the power privatisation mean major contracts are due to be awarded. Critics point out that such juicy deals have in the past been the oil that greases Nigeria's political patronage system, and fear that political interests will be in play as contracts are handed out.
Government spending is also on the rise.
Some $4.7 billion in revenues and windfall oil savings were distributed to federal, state and local governments in budgetary allocations for July, one of the biggest ever monthly disbursals. [ID:nLDE67C1MD]
The payout, a large part of it to state governors who will have a say in Jonathan's political fate at the primaries, left the country's excess crude account -- in which windfall oil savings are meant to be kept -- with just $460 million, down from $20 billion at the start of this presidential term.
What to watch:
-- Further fiscal indiscipline. Monthly disbursals and spending are likely to remain high as election campaigning steps up, further damaging the fiscal position.
Africa's biggest oil and gas industry, spread across the mangrove creeks of the Niger Delta, has gone more than a year without a significant militant attack, the result of last year's amnesty in which thousands of gunmen laid down arms.
But some ex-militants are complaining the post-amnesty programme has stalled, with promises of stipends and retraining unfulfilled. Jonathan has made pledges but progress is slow.
Industry sources say there has been a sharp rise in bunkering -- the theft of industrial quantities of crude oil -- and illegal refining, and this month, three French oil workers were kidnapped from an oil supply ship.
Some of the armed gangs originally had political backing, and were used to rig elections. There are concerns history could repeat itself as polls near.
There have also been isolated acts of election-related violence in some northern states including Bauchi, where several people have been killed in clashes over the display of campaign posters, local politicians have said.
What to watch:
-- Protests by former Niger Delta militants over delays to amnesty payments.
-- Further outbreaks of isolated violence in the north as election campaigning intensifies. (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ )
Editing by Giles Elgood Reuters messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org, Lagos Newsroom +234 1 463 0257