Benin's Constitutional Court postponed the Presidential election scheduled for 28th February to 6th March 2016 due to the inability of the Liste Electorale Permanente Informatisée (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 maintained an ad hoc electoral list valid for only six months. The introduction of the permanent computerised electoral list (LEPI) in 2011 was a new development that was widely welcomed. However, the handing over of the LEPI to the COS/LEPI, comprising mainly of politicians - 9 out of its 11 members are Members of Parliament - 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 LEPI before making it available to 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 voter's cards on time. In addition to the inability to guarantee every eligible voter a voter card to enable them to participate in the forthcoming elections, there is an issues about the validity previous voter cards. New voter's cards were issued in 2015 with the law stipulating that voter's cards are valid for ten years.
Initially, there were concerns as to whether these voter's cards will be valid in the forthcoming elections. However, Benin's Constitutional Court has ruled that both old and new voter cards can be used for the March 6th Presidential elections. In its decision, the Court went further to dissolve COS/LEPI, which according to the electoral code became defunct after January 31st 2016 and replaced it with the National Processing Center (Centre de National Treatment CNT). It is hoped that this decision will reduce the numbers of people disenfranchised in the election.
Like most francophone countries, Benin operates a mixed Election Management Body (EMB) called Commission Electorale Nationale Autonome (CENA) presently comprising of five members. At present, it has no 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 difficult. With the replacement of COS/LEPI with CNT less than a fortnight before the elections are due, coordination is likely to remain a major drawback 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 candidacy fee of approximately US$27,000. Following the Court's decision, 3 other candidates withdrew, leaving a total number of 33 in the race.
A unique and defining characteristic in Benin is that only independent candidates have been elected presidents since the country joined the third wave of democratisation in 1991. In this election, four out of the five leading candidates are independent. This is due largely as a result of the lack of internal party democracy.
Like in most African countries, candidate selection is determined by political godfathers who determine the candidate irrespective of interests of other members of the party. This is the case in point for the ruling coalition. It is fragmented due to the adoption of Prime Minister Lionel 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 links with France. Although the ruling coalition is divided, Zinsou has gained the support of 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.
However, Union fait la Nation (UN) another opposition party, and the second most important political coalition, has given the go ahead to its members to support any candidate of their choice other than Zinsou.
The current Prime Minister will face immense challenge from a number of independents candidates notably Sebastien Ajavon, who heads Benin's National Council of Companies; Patrice Talon, known as 'the cotton King' now pardoned after accusations of his involvement in an alleged plot to poison Presient Boni Yayi and Pascal Koupaki, a former finance minister and Prime Minister. Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, a former finance minister and director for Africa at the International Monetary Fund, is also in contention.
Another reason for the prevalence of independent candidate 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, Sebastien Adjavon and Patrice Talon, are amongst the leading 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 Ministry 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 Five (5) million CFA per Member of Parliament 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. Thirdly, 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).