/ 17 April 2019

Benin votes — but with no opposition to choose from

Benin's President Patrice Talon.
Benin's President Patrice Talon. (Reuters/Thierry Gouegnon)

Benin votes for a new parliament on April 28, but a country that was once seen as a model of democracy in Africa is facing a worrying political crisis.

Voters in the small West African state will get only one choice of members of parliament — for the first time in three decades, the opposition will not take part.

Election watchdogs last month ruled that only two parties, both allied to President Patrice Talon, met toughened conditions of admissibility under new electoral laws.

Their decision effectively barred the entire political opposition from fielding candidates.

“This is the first time that opposition parties will not be taking part in legislative elections since the return of the democratic era in 1991,” said Steve Kpoton, a lawyer and political analyst.

Before 1991, Benin struggled under decades of authoritarian rule. The transition to democracy brought a flowering of political competition — five years ago, voters could chose from 20 parties for the 83 seats in parliament.

New election rules

But this year, lawmakers from the ruling party pushed through a new electoral code.

Critics say the rules were too tough and bureaucratic, and opposition parties failed to meet all the administrative requirements in time.

Eric Houndete, deputy speaker of parliament and the leader of an opposition coalition, warned of public anger.

“Benin will not allow 83 personal deputies of the head of state to be appointed to parliament,” he said.

Public protests have been broken up by security forces.

Talon, elected in 2016, portrays himself as reformer and modernist.

He defended the electoral code, saying it would bring together the scores of political parties into simpler blocs.

“There are more than 250 political parties… each of these new parties includes dozens of political movements,” Talon said this month.

Instead, he said he wanted to see parties coalesce into a third and fourth coalition to counterbalance the two main parties — that both back him — in parliament.

“I am pragmatic, I am a realist,” Talon said. “I am someone who moves forward despite the difficulties.”

But Talon, a 60-year old millionaire former businessman who made his money in cotton and ports, has also been repeatedly accused of authoritarianism since coming to power.

‘Attack on democracy’

Civil society groups say the new electoral code is a “democratic retreat.”

“An election can only be democratic when it brings into competition political forces favourable to power, and political forces opposed to power,” said civil society coalition Social Watch Benin.

The coalition, along with other groups, has suspended its role in the electoral process, including not deploying observers.

“Civil society cannot condone this serious attack on democracy”, said Hubert Acakpo, chief of a watchdog group called SOS Credible Elections.

Kpoton, the analyst, warned the vote would produce a parliament “exclusively” under the power of the president, and able to change the country’s constitution.

Others fear that is exactly president’s aim.

“Talon’s plan is to revise the constitution as he pleases,” said Corneille Nonhemi, a young activist who wanted to run as a candidate for the Social Liberal Union (USL).

The USL party is led by Sebastien Ajavon, a wealthy businessman who ran against Talon in the 2016 presidential elections.

Ajavon has sought asylum in France after a special court last year handed him a 20-year term for alleged drugs offences — a trial his legal team denounced as a sham and politically motivated.

Talon has offered words of comfort to those who were unable to register for the vote, saying that elections were not everything.

“Life does not stop there,” the president said.