Abuja: Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan looked set to win the ruling party primaries on Friday, building what appeared an unassailable lead in a vote whose conduct was challenged by his main rival`s supporters.
With results in from more than half the country`s 36 states and from the capital Abuja, Jonathan had 1,272 votes against ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar`s 373 and had beaten his rival in 18 of the 20 states counted. A simple majority wins.
The battle between Jonathan, the first head of state from the southern oil-producing Niger Delta, and ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a businessman from the mostly Muslim north, has divided opinion in the People`s Democratic Party (PDP).
The PDP candidate has won every presidential election in Africa`s most populous nation since the end of military rule in 1999, but the outcome may not be so certain this time.
Key will be how Abubakar reacts if his defeat is confirmed. He could seek to form an alliance with northerners from a rival party, taking some ruling party supporters with him, and still challenge Jonathan at the April elections.
Abubakar`s supporters said the counting process at the primaries -- reading out results state by state -- favored the incumbent because it put pressure on state governors, who depend on federal resources to fund their budgets, to back him.
"It is a grand design to rig. We only found out about it when we arrived here. We asked for a full delegates` list, which we never got," said Umar Kareto Lawan, an Abubakar supporter from the northeastern state of Borno.
Jonathan`s supporters dismissed the complaints.
"There will always be complaints ... Complaints should be made before, not after," Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia said.
Jonathan`s path to power -- assuming the country`s highest office when his predecessor, Umaru Yar`Adua, died last year -- means Nigeria is in uncharted waters.
His bid interrupts a PDP pact that power rotates between the mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south every two terms. As a southerner, he faces opposition running for what would have been the second term of Yar`Adua -- a northerner.
Abubakar`s campaign manager, Ben Obi, complained of irregularities, saying the delegates` lists had been doctored, and Abubakar himself made a fiery speech at the convention condemning Jonathan for breaching the zoning pact.
"If rules can be thrown away by just anyone who feels he is powerful enough to do so, then it is an invitation to lawlessness and anarchy," he said, raising doubts about whether he would quietly accept defeat and back Jonathan.
Africa`s most populous nation is a patchwork of more than 200 ethnic groups, roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims, who generally live peacefully side by side, but regional and ethnic rivalries bubble under the surface.
A New Year`s Eve bomb in Abuja killed four people. A series of blasts and subsequent clashes have killed more than 80 in the central city of Jos, the scene of frequent bursts of ethnic and religious unrest.
Analysts fear the election debate could become polarized around north-south rivalries if parts of the PDP turn their back on Jonathan once his win is confirmed.