Benin’s local elections further reduce the political space

Controversial electoral laws and the opposition’s likely absence from the 2021 presidential polls threaten democracy.

On 17 May 2020 voters in Benin elected their communal and municipal councillors. Elections went ahead despite the COVID-19 pandemic and political tensions, and a year after the contested April 2019 legislative elections.

Beyond their importance in consolidating democracy at the local level, these polls were critical to the choice of candidates for the 2021 presidential elections – which could be held for the first time without an opposition. A new electoral law adopted in November 2019 requires presidential and vice-presidential candidates to be sponsored by at least 16 parliamentarians and/or mayors.

Article 189 stipulates that ‘the mayor and deputy mayors are elected by the municipal council from among its members ... The candidate for mayor or deputy mayor is presented by the party that has obtained an absolute majority of the councillors.’ Because the opposition isn’t represented in Parliament, mayors are a key source of sponsorship – they determine opposition candidates’ eligibility for the presidential election.

The provisional results of the communal elections announced on 21 May indicate that the Forces Cauris pour un Bénin Emergent (FCBE), the only opposition party that participated, obtained an absolute majority of councillors in seven municipalities. In accordance with Article 189, the party should control seven out of the 77 mayorships. This falls short of the 16 mayorships needed to sponsor its presidential candidate.

Benin’s local elections were critical to the choice of candidates for the 2021 presidential elections

The elections were held despite concerns about COVID-19 and calls for postponement. By the eve of the polls, Benin had recorded 339 cases, with two deaths. When the first cases emerged in mid-March, schools, places of worship and the country’s borders were closed. A sanitary cordon – put in place to restrict the mobility of people in the municipalities most exposed to the virus – was lifted before the election.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the electoral campaign was conducted exclusively in the media. But some violations of the restrictions, particularly the ban on public meetings imposed by the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENA), occurred.

The National Order of Physicians of Benin denounced the non-compliance of social distancing during the campaign, but the government and CENA said they had taken preventive measures. These included distributing masks on voting day, installing hand-washing devices and providing hydro-alcoholic gels, and ensuring safe distancing at polling stations. Contrary to expectations of a low voter turnout, the participation rate was 49.14% compared to 56.95% in 2015.

However the grouping of civil society organisations that observed the election countrywide fears an increase in the number of COVID-19 infections due to non-compliance with social distancing measures at some stations.

The opposition isn’t represented in Parliament, so mayors need to sponsor their presidential candidates

Political tensions were also high during the polls – a hangover from the disputed April 2019 legislative elections in which no opposition party participated. The dispute stems from provisions in the charter of political parties and the revised electoral law, both adopted in 2018. In 2019 the National Assembly, controlled by parties favourable to President Patrice Talon, revised the law.

The main opposition parties, the Union sociale libérale of Sébastien Ajavon, and Restaurer l’espoir of Candide Azannaï, didn’t take part in the recent elections. The former didn’t get legal authorisation to operate, while Azannaï’s party boycotted the ballot, questioning the credibility of the process. The two parties and other opposition figures called on voters to boycott the election.

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled that Benin should suspend the electoral process and organise inclusive elections. On 21 April 2020, Benin withdrew from the protocol that allows citizens and non-governmental organisations to bring cases directly before that court. Amnesty International called this a further step ‘in the growing repression of dissident voices in Benin.’

Then Benin’s Constitutional Court ruled that the additional protocol of the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which allows citizens to bring cases before it, was no longer enforceable against Benin.

Lessons should be learnt from the 2019 political dialogue that excluded the main opposition leaders

Only three of the five parties that contested the local elections obtained more than the 10% threshold required to be allocated municipal council seats. The Talon-aligned Progressive Union and Republican Bloc obtained 39.97% and 37.38% respectively. The opposition FCBE obtained 14.98%.

However the FCBE is plagued by internal tensions that led to defections and the resignation of its founder, former president Boni Yayi, a month before the communal elections. He accused Talon of having a stranglehold on the FCBE. So even if the party collected the sponsorship required to present a presidential candidate, its legitimacy as an ‘opposition party’ would remain tainted by suspicions of being government-aligned.

The opposition’s absence in the upcoming presidential election will undermine the credibility of the polls and the legitimacy of the elected president. In the longer term, the lack of opposition voices in political and governance processes and the absence of political consensus will restrict the political space and undermine democracy.

In the search for solutions, the period leading up to the 2021 presidential elections should be put to good use by both national actors and Benin’s partners. The African Union’s (AU) observer mission recommendations after the 2019 legislative elections remain relevant.

These include an inclusive and consensual approach to implementing reforms, establishing a permanent consultation framework between political actors and other stakeholders in the electoral process, and maintaining political dialogue. Lessons should be learnt from the October 2019 political dialogue that excluded the main opposition leaders, who criticised it as non-inclusive and a pretext to revise the constitution.

ECOWAS, the AU, the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel and the International Organisation of La Francophonie should continue helping the government, political parties and civil society find a consensual way out.

To avoid undermining government’s credibility and delegitimising its democratic and legal institutions, Talon – the guarantor of the Benin’s peace and stability – should lead on ensuring an inclusive and consultative approach.

Jeannine Ella Abatan, Senior Researcher and Michaël Matongbada, Research Officer, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

This article was produced with the support of the United Kingdom Conflict, Stability and Security Fund and the government of Denmark.

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