Benin’s Constitutional Court postponed the Presidential election scheduled for 28th February to 6th of March 2016 due to the inability of the Liste Electorale Permanente Informatisee (LEPI) Steering and Supervision Council (COS/LEPI) to print and distribute the voters’ cards by the initially proposed timeline. The postponement is just but one challenge that needs to be addressed before this weekend’s elections.
Before the 2011 Presidential elections, Benin had maintained an ad hoc electoral list (only valid for six months) where registrants would have their name written on a sheet of paper. The introduction of the permanent computerised electoral list (LEPI) in 2011 was, therefore, a welcome development. However, the handing over of the LEPI to the COS/LEPI, comprising mainly politicians (9 out of its 11 members are MPs – 5 from the majority and 4 from the minority), has been problematic. The COS/LEPI, established to function from July 1st of every year through to January 31st of the following year, is tasked with the responsibility to print and distribute voter cards and to continuous update the LEPI before making it available for the Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA).
For the second time since the adoption of the electronic system, the COS/ LEPI failed to complete the printing and distribution of the voters cards on time. In addition to the inability to guarantee every eligible voter a voter’s card to participate in the forthcoming elections, is the questionable validity of previously issued voters card. New voter’s cards were issued in 2015 with the law stipulating that voter’s cards can last up to ten years. Initially, whether these voter’s cards will be valid in the forthcoming elections was an unanswered question.
However, the Constitutional Court of Benin has now ruled that both old and new voter cards can be used for the 6th March Presidential elections. The Court then went further to dissolve COS-LEPI (which according to the electoral code became illegal since January 31st 2016) replacing it with the Centre de National Treatment (CNT). It is believed that this decision will reduce the numbers of people disenfranchised in the election.
Like most of francophone countries, Benin operates a mixed Election Management Body (EMB) called Commission Electorale Nationale Autonome (CENA) presently comprising five members (however there is no longer a CSO representation). Aside from the weaknesses of the electoral law challenging the work of the CENA, the lack of coordination between the CENA and COS/LEPI has always been a challenge. With the proscription of the latter and introduction of CNT less than a fortnight before the elections are due, coordination is likely to remain a challenge between the CENA and the CNT.
A total of 47 candidates presented themselves for the polls. However, only 36 were confirmed by the Constitutional Court. 11 others were rejected for various reasons such as the inability to pay the CFA FR15m – i.e. about US$27,000 – candidacy fee, amongst others). Following the Court’s decision 3 other candidates withdrew, leaving a total number is down to 33 in the race.
A unique and defining characteristic of Benin is that only independent candidates have been elected presidents since the country joined the third wave of democratisation in 1991. However, the major difference of this Presidential poll is the prominence of independent candidates as against political parties. Four out of the five leading candidates are independent (while in the past, only one or maybe two were so). This dominance of independent candidates is connected to the lack of internal party democracy in political parties.
Like in most African countries, candidate selection is a challenge as political godfathers hold sway in terms of who emerges as candidate, irrespective of members’ interest. For instance, the ruling coalition in Benin is fragmented due to the adoption of Prime Minister Zinsou (who is considered an outsider) as its presidential candidate. Many of his compatriots in the Les Forces Cauris Pour un Benin Emergent (FCBE) (the ruling and the most important political coalition in the country) are kicking against his selection as the party presidential candidate because they claim this was done against the coalition’s internal rules, his dual nationality and his strong link with France. The Parti du Renouveau Democratique (PRD), the third political force in the country (headed by the current Speaker of the National Assembly), and the Renaissance du Bénin (RB), the fourth political force in Benin, have adopted Zinsou as their candidate.
However, The Union fait la Nation (UN) another opposition party, and the second most important political coalition, has given the go ahead to members to support any candidate of their choice aside from Zinsou. Other leading candidates vying as independents are Sebastien Ajavon, who heads Benin’s National Council of Heads of Companies; Patrice Talon, known as ‘the cotton King’ now pardoned after accusations of involvement in an alleged plot to poison Boni Yayi and Pascal Koupaki; former finance minister and Prime Minister of Yayi (for seven years in total). Bio Tchane, a former finance minister supported by a coalition of parties called ABT, is also in the race for the Presidential election.
Another reason for the prominence of independent candidates over political parties are the political party financing regulations. With the gradual but effective decimation of opposition political parties from the time of Mathieu Kerekou, coupled with zero sum politics, political parties in Benin have come to rely solely on private funding to run election campaigns, and most of this money is raised internally from political godfathers and businessmen. The ousting of African presidents (mostly from neighbouring countries) who traditionally contributed to the funding of elections in Benin and some other countries has also affected the political landscape. It is worth mentioning that the two most important businessmen (and parties’ godfathers), Mr. Adjavon and Talon, are among the frontline candidates in the forthcoming elections. This suggests that by contrast political forces were unable to fund their campaigns (and hence to have their own candidates).
The institutionalisation of political parties has been further impeded by the legislation requiring opposition parties to register with the Minister of Interior. Rather than register under the law, political parties prefer to act as opposition (and paradoxically to be officially recognised as such) without following due process. Connected to this is the implementation of the 5 million CFA per MP funding mechanism. The ambiguity of the law, which does not clearly state if the money should go to the parliamentarians or parties, further weakens the party system and fuels corruption. The practice so far has been to dole out this money to political forces to either buy support or votes in parliament when necessary.
The election in Benin brings salient issues to the fore. One is the importance of political parties in a democracy. The absence of viable political parties is affecting democratic consolidation in the region. It is imperative that stakeholders put more efforts in strengthening the political party system. Secondly, there should be adequate legislation to make it as “comfortable” as possible for opposition parties to play their roles. Third, there is a need to reduce corruption and the hijacking of the democratic system by political godfathers. Lastly, are electoral reforms helping to deal with some of the challenges confronting the electoral processes such as the lack of coordination among bodies involved in the management of the electoral processes, and the weaknesses of the electoral code.
Idayat Hassan, Director, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) and Mathias HOUNKPE, Political Governance Program Manager, Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).