Democratic Deficiencies Come to Define Benin

Patrice Talon Votes in Benin
Patrice Talon Votes in the 2019 election in Benin. Photo by VOA.

By Idayat Hassan

Democratic Deficiencies in Benin.

The third wave of democracy in Africa took root in the republic of Benin, a small West Africa state. Its origin dates back to the constitutional reform of 1990. The reform adopted multiparty democracy and led to the dissolution of the very government that brought it into existence. So, from that moment until 2016 Benin functioned as one of West Africa’s leading democratic lights with the country consistently ranked as a stable democracy in most indexes. Unfortunately, this once beacon of West Africa democracy now suffers from one of the worst cases democratic backsliding in the region.

Since the election of President Patrice Talon in 2016, the African capital of civil society suffers from a democratic roll back with even free and fair elections, previously the norm, now fast becoming an exception. Locally the Talon regime is known as a “regime of destruction” as Benin politics have witnessed a democratic roll back with constitutional changes, political reforms, the introduction of a digital code and human rights abuses with far reaching negative implications for civil liberties and political rights.

The political reform, including the new electoral code President Talon introduced, has not just constricted the civic space but limited political participation. His administration has also clamped down on freedom of expression and access to information, even jailing journalists and opposing voices. Regional courts such as the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and ECOWAS court of justice have adjudged Benin’s government of committing gross human rights and stifling political participation.

New Election Laws

The new electoral act introduced far reaching reforms such as the grand electeur parrainage which requires candidates to receive endorsements from at least 19 parliamentarians or mayors in order to contest for a presidential election. In the same vein, ahead of the presidential elections in 2021, the filing fee to access the ballot increased from 15 million CFA to 250 million CFA with the attendant effect that only two parties – the Republicans and Progressive Union – (both loyal to the President) fielded candidates in the elections. A further caveat was failure to win 10 percent meant that a party lost its deposit. At the same time, the control fiscal includes a for a tax clearance certificate that are denied for most aspiring candidates.

A new charter for political parties was also introduced with far reaching amendments including an increased requirement for at least 1,555 members as minimum as opposed to  previous 120 to attend the founding general assembly of the party. This is costly and onerous as it goes beyond attendance but each of them also have to file some basic documents for the party to be formed. These reforms make it difficult for citizens to get on the ballot, as many have no support base for an endorsement, cannot afford the filing fees, or even fear losing the deposit. Taken together these tools stifle participation, exclude new voices, and weaken competitive elections. From the around 150 political parties that vied in the 2016 elections, there are currently around 14 political parties with only 2 participating in the 2019 elections due to the new laws.

Rigging Elections

The April 2019 parliamentary elections ignited widespread post-election violence, the first of its kind in the country. What started as citizen protests against the results was met with a violent police response leading to the death of several unarmed protesters. Following the 2019 elections, the assembly went ahead to introduce far reaching amendments to the constitution at the direction of the President. Since then, another 5 political parties have participated in the municipal council polls, but only three have won the 10 percent minimum threshold to sit on municipal councils. For instance, the 2019 parliamentary elections witnessed a boycott as many opposition parties were unable to participate.

The forthcoming 2023 parliamentary elections have 109 seats up for grabs with 24 reserved for females. Unlike previous elections, seven parties are vying in this election. The failure to participate may preclude them from participating in the forthcoming 2026 Presidential elections, allowing for Talon’s party to win again. For instance, in the 2021 vote, Talon had 83 legislators and 70 out of the 77 mayors back his candidacy making it difficult for other candidates to qualify. However, the increased participation might have something to do with a constitutional provision that requires any political party that does not participate in two consecutive elections to dissolve. But at the same time, rumors have swirled that the President supports some of them with him even providing the deposit to ensure their participation.

The Future of Democracy in Benin

The resignation of the President of the Benin Constitutional Court, Mr. Joseph Djogbénou, to head one of the party coalitions underscores the importance of this election. It is a first in West Africa for a judicial officer to resign to become a party President. Djogbenou is a personal friend of President Talon and ardent supporter. He is now the leader of the UP The renewal, formed as a result of the merger between the ruling Progressive Union (UP) and the former opposition Party of Democratic Renewal (PRD). However, the emergence of the Le Democrat as the new party making waves in Benin with former President Yayi Boni as the defacto leader has also raised the stakes of the political game. Yayi Boni has led campaigns across the country. It is projected that the Democrat may do well in the parliamentary elections.

Indeed, the parliamentary elections are so important for Benin’s democracy that it is necessary to win 19 seatssimply to access the ballots for Presidential elections. In other words, they will determine the landscape of the forthcoming 2026 Presidential elections. A failure to win will mean none of the parties can access ballots.  A diverse parliament may even undo some of the political reforms restricting political participation ahead of the 2026 presidential elections. Ultimately, the forthcoming parliamentary elections may determine the future of democracy in Benin for the foreseeable future.

About the Author

Idayat Hassan is the Director of the Abuja based Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD-West Africa) and can be reached at hidahassan@yahoo.com

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