Benin tests the limits of democracy

The absence of opposition parties from recent legislative elections could deeply undermine government's legitimacy.

At least two dead, several wounded – this is the official human toll of the violence that occurred after Benin’s contested legislative elections of 28 April when police fired live ammunition at protesters. The material damage incurred during rioting and arson is yet to be tallied.

The political deadlock continues. At the heart of the crisis is a recent institutional reform that prevented all opposition parties from participating in the polls. Their absence made the election result a foregone conclusion. While opposition parties demand new all-inclusive elections, the government maintains that ‘the electoral process was conducted in accordance with the law, (and) will follow its course till the end.’

The short-term challenge is to maintain peace and stability in Benin. Beyond that, the major hurdle is to consolidate democratic gains in the country. On 2 May, the Constitutional Court announced a voter turnout rate of 27.12% – the lowest ever recorded. Two factors account for this.

Benin recorded its lowest voter turnout rate ever during its 28 April legislative elections

First, no opposition parties participated in the election. Their absence was a result of controversial new electoral provisions adopted last year. Ten political parties initially wanted to participate in the elections. Three didn’t file their candidacy because they failed to obtain their certificate of conformity from the Ministry of Interior. Of the seven applications finally submitted to the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENA), only those of two coalitions – the Progressive Union and the Republican Bloc, both of which support President Patrice Talon – were authorised by the CENA to take part.

The principle of compliance is enshrined in Article 56 of the new Charter of Political Parties. However neither the new Electoral Code nor the charter explicitly mentions needing a certificate of conformity. It was the Constitutional Court on 1 February 2019 that added this requirement to enable parties to participate in legislative elections, and indeed to exist beyond 16 March 2019.

The court’s ruling, which came less than 21 days before the submission of candidacy to the CENA, deepened suspicion among the parties. It should however be noted that the Ministry of Interior’s rejection of the compliance files of several parties was due to irregularities unrelated to the new reforms of the charter and electoral code. These include defects on some of the 12 mandatory documents needed to obtain a certificate of conformity.

Setting up a rubber-stamp parliament could considerably undermine governance in Benin

Attempts to resolve the crisis through consensus between the president and some opposition figures on the one hand, and the parliamentary majority and minority on the other, failed. So a few days before the poll, opposition parties asked their supporters to boycott the polls.

The second reason for the low voter turnout was the violent clashes the day before and on polling day in several cities. In Tchaourou, Yayi’s stronghold, a polling station and ballot boxes were burnt. These incidents prevented voting in 39 of the country’s 546 districts.

Calm has returned since 4 May, but violent demonstrations could again break out between now and 15 May when the new legislature will be installed. Beyond the risk of violence, setting up a rubber-stamp national assembly for a four-year term could considerably undermine democracy and result in constant challenges to Parliament’s legitimacy.

A possible revision of the constitution, which is Talon’s flagship project, would also lack legitimacy. The Constitutional Court has recently been criticised for seemingly partial decisions since Joseph Djogbénou, a former justice minister under Talon and close friend of the president, became court president in June 2018.

A parliament that lacks legitimacy will undermine the separation of powers and with it, governance in the country. Such an unprecedented situation would discredit government actions and weaken democracy and the rule of law. In this climate of uncertainty and grave risks, the focus until 15 May must be on easing tensions and reaching agreement on holding inclusive and peaceful elections.

The last thing Benin needs is socio-political division that could heighten its regional vulnerabilities

Two options could be explored. The first is provided by Article 55 of the Organic Law of the Constitutional Court. It says any registered voter or electoral candidate can lay a complaint contesting the result of the election with the Constitutional Court within 10 days of the results being announced. However the court is unlikely to annul the outcome considering all its rulings have favoured the electoral process’s continuity.

The second way out of the stalemate is dialogue. A call from Talon for dialogue could ease tensions and result in broad consultation on viable strategies to resolve the crisis. The opposition and ruling parties should place the national interest above their partisan interests to ensure the dialogue’s success.

Benin also needs to strengthen its democracy to meet the challenges of development in an increasingly uncertain regional security environment. The abduction on 1 May in Pendjari Park of two French nationals and their Beninese guide, who was found dead on 4 May near the border with Burkina Faso, illustrates the regional threats. The last thing Benin needs now is the creation of socio-political division that could add to these vulnerabilities.

Jeannine Ella Abatan, Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Related content