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LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan goes into an election on Saturday bolstered by division among the main opposition parties which has increased his chances of sealing victory in the first round.
Africa's most populous nation votes for the second time this month on Saturday, part of an election cycle which, so far, observers have deemed to have been among the most credible for several decades.
The ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) saw its parliamentary majority eroded in last week's legislative polls but the opposition has failed to capitalize on the momentum, instead holding messy eleventh-hour talks to form an alliance which ultimately ended in failure.
Samir Gadio, emerging markets strategist at Standard Bank, said the election now looked like a "done deal."
"Even if (the opposition) had agreed to field a single candidate I think it would have been too little too late," he said.
The candidate for the PDP, which calls itself black Africa's largest political party and has a huge nationwide machinery, has won every election since the end of military rule 12 years ago and Jonathan was already considered the favorite.
His main opponent, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, has strong grass roots support in parts of the north. The third major candidate, former anti-corruption chief Nuhu Ribadu, is from a party whose stronghold is the southwest.
The opposition are hoping their regional strengths combined will force a run-off. Jonathan would only win outright if he secures not only an overall majority, but also at least a quarter of the vote in two thirds of Nigeria's 36 states.
There were isolated reports of ballot box snatching, clashes between rival supporters in the Niger Delta and two bombs in the remote northeast during last week's parliamentary vote but observers said it was a vast improvement on previous polls.
A similarly credible presidential election would do much to restore investor confidence in Africa's third biggest economy.
"Parliamentary elections have given investors that much more confidence in the likely eventual outcomes," said Razia Khan, head of Africa research at Standard Chartered.
Buhari's Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and Ribadu's Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) held days of talks to try to hammer out a formal alliance this week, but to no avail.
The ACN has also been wooed by Jonathan after gaining seats in the legislative polls, making it likely to form the main parliamentary opposition whose cooperation will be key to the next president's ability to pass laws easily.
"Since last Saturday's election, the president has opened a discussion with us... He has been sending the leaders to us, traditional rulers and so on," ACN chairman Bisi Akande told reporters on Wednesday, after talks with the CPC collapsed.
"It is difficult for us to accept the reach-out of Mr President because of the company he keeps in the PDP, but as a person, we respect his efforts," he said.
Akande's comments reflect a common perception of Jonathan -- a former zoology teacher born to a family of canoe makers in the southern Niger Delta -- as an affable and well-intentioned, if rather uncharismatic, leader.
Nigerians have typically voted for personalities rather than parties in the presidential race and opposition to the PDP at the parliamentary and regional government level will not necessarily translate into opposition to Jonathan himself.
In many of the areas where the PDP lost parliamentary seats, the party was a close runner-up, suggesting that -- with the possible exception of parts of the northwest -- even where he faces a tough race he should still muster a quarter of the vote.
"Jonathan is the clear frontrunner for Saturday especially given the inability of the opposition to agree an alliance to run against the formidable PDP machinery," said Kayode Akindele, a director at consultancy Greengate Strategic Partners.
"A key consideration for the winner however, given the fractious nature of the campaign, is to show nationwide appeal and not just regional support so as to strengthen their mandate and possibly provide the impetus for economic reforms."
(For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ )
Additional reporting by Chijioke Ohuocha in Lagos and Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Matthew Tostevin