Displaced people fleeing from Boko Haram violence waited in line to receive relief materials at a camp for displaced people camp in Borno state, Nigeria, Jan. 19, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

The escalation of Boko Haram’s bloody insurgency in northeastern Nigeria, including its assault Sunday on the strategic city of Maiduguri, has raised serious concerns about the ability of a significant portion of the Nigerian electorate to participate in the country’s upcoming presidential elections. The potential disenfranchisement of up to 1.5 million people displaced as a result of the violence by the militant Islamist organization could undermine the credibility of the already divisive election and raises the likelihood of sectarian violence in the aftermath of the hotly contested political battle.

The Boko Haram insurgency will have an effect on voting in the three northeastern Nigerian states in which it is most active, experts said. Amid questions about the logistics of setting up polling stations in the midst of instability in Adamawa, Yobe and Borno, there also is the matter of Nigerian electoral law, which requires voters to cast ballots in their home constituencies. Such a provision will make it nearly impossible for the more than 1 million refugees and internally displaced citizens to vote in the Feb. 14 election.

This will be Boko Haram’s biggest impact on the election, said Alex Thurston, who teaches in the African Studies program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “They’ve made a serious, credible election untenable in Borno state and will make it difficult to hold an election in the other two states,” he said. “There are really high estimates of people displaced and there haven’t been adequate provisions made to make sure these people can vote.”

A failure to enfranchise this subset of the Nigerian electorate would be bad enough on its own, but the possibility that it could undermine the electoral process as a whole is also a major concern, said Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “Even in a best faith effort, it's going to be very difficult to ensure the vote of all Nigerians in Borno and the northeast,” she said. “The question is what level of enfranchisement and access is going to be acceptable to both parties. There has to be some agreement on that before elections because if there isn't some standard of agreement ... it could call into question the legitimacy and constitutionality of the election as a whole.”

Incumbent leader Goodluck Jonathan is facing former ruler and opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari in the February election, which has already proved divisive and polarizing. Jonathan’s main base of support comes from the southern, oil-producing Niger Delta region, while Buhari is mainly favored in the southwest and the north, the predominantly Muslim region that has a record of voting for the opposition. The three states in which Boko Haram is strongest -- Borno, Adamawa and Yobe -- are thought to have majority Muslim populations, though Nigeria's official census does not record religious affiliation.

While the disenfranchisement of a significant portion of the electorate in the opposition stronghold of the north may on the surface appear to favor Jonathan, the reality of Nigeria’s formula for calculating electoral victory means that neither candidate would benefit from the situation. “It’s unfair to say that either side benefits by not having people vote,” said J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “It’s a double-edged sword. Voter suppression in the north would tend to suppress votes that would likely go to the opposition but it would also suppress those that may have gone to the incumbent that they would need to meet the vote threshold required by the Nigerian constitution.”

Not only does a successful presidential candidate need to win 50 percent plus one vote of the total cast, but Nigeria’s constitution also stipulates that candidates are required to garner 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of the states. Based on past elections, it is doubtful that Jonathan will be able to carry northern states. However, his potential victory could still depend on garnering votes among reliable pockets of support in the north, where the ability to vote could very well be impacted by Boko Haram.

Despite this reality, a narrow electoral margin could turn the spotlight on the north’s disenfranchised voters, who could become the focus of postelection rhetoric by the loser of the presidential race. “Even if the [winner] is elected cleanly, legally and otherwise, a sore, irresponsible loser has plenty of scope to blow smoke because of the situation created by Boko Haram violence,” said Pham, who warned of the possibility of an “asterisk mark” next to the winner’s legitimacy.

The possibility that the election results could be undermined does not bode well for Nigeria, a country that has seen significant postelection violence in its previous presidential votes since the end of military rule. Following Jonathan’s victory in the 2011 contest, rioting broke out in the north and at least 800 people reportedly were killed in the violence. The loaded rhetoric around the current presidential race could mean that the aftermath of this election will not be much better. “The appeal to ethnic and religious identities going on right and left in Nigeria ... can set the stage for quite a bloody ethnic and religious conflict in the aftermath of the elections,” said former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

According to Campbell, the breakdown of the system of power alternation, the informal Nigerian political agreement that held that the presidency would alternate between the predominantly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south, has encouraged a new focus on using ethnic and religious differences to rally support. Jonathan’s decision to run in 2011 was a departure from the informal system and contributed to the rise of northern animosity toward the Jonathan government.

“Boko Haram and the insurgency in the north has deepened some of the polarization in the rhetoric on religious lines,” said Cooke, who pointed out that though elections tend to bring out these sorts of issues, this time around the rhetoric in Nigeria has been slightly elevated. The concern in the immediate term is that a protracted political battle fought out in Abuja in the aftermath of the elections could distract attention away from the northeast, “with the possibility of Boko Haram taking advantage to expand its attacks or take additional territory,” according to Cooke.

It will be up to the loser of the election to not “irresponsibly stoke the flames for political gain,” said Pham. “Just like last time, the real danger of that is it could produce violence ... and Boko Haram can step in and capitalize on a situation they helped bring about,” he said. “Boko Haram will be the only winner if that happens.”