16 March 2016

Benin: Zinsou Versus Talon - Who Will Be Benin's Next President?

Photo: Supplied
Patrice Talon, Benin's president-elect.
analysis

On Sunday 20 March, Benin's citizens will choose their president in the second round of an open ballot. This election will consolidate the country's democratic gains and mark the fourth democratic changeover in the country since the advent of multiparty politics in 1990.

If the outcome of the first round were difficult to predict, expectations for the second round are even more uncertain.

Given the results of the first round and the emergence of two candidates - Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, who is also the candidate of the ruling coalition, and the businessman Patrice Talon - four key observations can be drawn.

The first relates to the organisation of the first round by the Autonomous National Electoral Commission (Commission électorale nationale autonome, or CENA). The commission, which became permanent in 2013, seems to have taken on board lessons learnt in last year's two elections.

The CENA has shown commendable flexibility by allowing voters who hadn't received new voter cards to vote in the first round using their 2015 election cards. First-time voters who had not received voter cards were allowed to cast their ballot using their national identity cards.

The CENA has also shown its ability to build consensus by engaging civil society and political parties in the decision to postpone the polling dates, and it has improved its communication by making better use of social media. Another laudable achievement is that the major trends of the election were announced within a reasonable period - 48 hours after the vote. This marks an improvement from the legislative elections of 26 April 2015, where trends were made public five days after the vote.

The second key observation relates to the split of votes among candidates. Having 33 candidates for 4.7 million voters risked fracturing the electorate, but the first round played out between five favourites (Lionel Zinsou, Patrice Talon, Sébastien Ajavon, Abdoulaye Bio Tchané and Pascal Irénée Koukpaki), who mobilised more than 90% of the electorate. They respectively obtained 28.42%, 24.73%, 22.96%, 8.69% and 5.87% of the votes, while the other candidates obtained less than 2% of the vote each.

Patrice Talon and Sébastien Ajavon, both of them wealthy businessmen, gained around 50% of the vote. Their popularity seems to confirm that traditional politicians face a crisis of confidence from the population, which often accuse them of being driven by commercial ambitions and failing to implement policies.

Talon and Ajavon have, of their own accord, financed candidates in electoral contests in the past. Their portion of the votes gained shows how important financial resources are in electoral campaigning.

Although the geographical distribution of the votes cast in the first round benefits both candidates running in the second round, the 'game of alliances' that has ensued from the two main alliances formed seems to have worked mostly in favour of Lionel Zinsou.

His candidacy is backed by the so-called 'alliance of continuity', which is made up of the ruling Forces Cauris pour un Bénin Emergent (FCBE) coalition, the Parti du Renouveau Démocratique (PRD) and the Renaissance du Bénin (RB).

In the FCBE strongholds in the north and in those of the PRD in Ouémé - mainly in Porto Novo - Zinsou's performance could be attributed to support for outgoing President Yayi Boni (who comes from the north of the country), and Adrien Houngbédji (the president of the PRD, who comes from Porto Novo).

In the traditional strongholds of the RB, (including Zou, Littoral and Atlantic), Zinsou enjoyed less support than expected. His results from the traditional PRD and RB support bases were lower than those obtained by both parties during the 26 April 2015 parliamentary elections, and the 28 June 2015 local elections.

This could indicate that grassroots members of these parties disapprove of Zinsou, or it could point to internal disagreements within these parties, which may have caused dissidences in favour of opposition candidates. Party leaders would have asked their members to vote for Zinsou, but these patterns also show that supporters' compliance is not a given.

Despite Yayi's decision to step down at the end of his second term, these results could also show the population's disapproval of the incumbent president.

Zinsou got 28.42% of the votes cast in the first round; a relatively low percentage compared to the more than 63% gained by the candidates of so-called 'alliance for rupture' - namely Patrice Talon, Sébastien Ajavon, Bio Tchané, Pascal Koupaki and Fernand Amoussou.

Indeed, Zinsou's result could be interpreted as a protest vote against the incumbent president. It could also be seen to be directed against the PRD and the RB parties, whose decision to join the ruling coalition for the presidential election has been criticised as 'opportunistic', given that both parties were in the opposition up until that point.

The context of this year's elections is not the same as in 2011, but Zinsou's result in the first round can be seen as an under-performance of the FCBE, considering that Boni Yayi won the 2011 election in the first round with 52% of the votes cast.

In the second round, the alliances backing the contesting candidates will have a definitive impact on the outcome of the election. The so-called 'alliance of continuity' of the FCBE-PRD-RB backs Lionel Zinsou, while 'the alliance of rupture' backs Patrice Talon.

Formed on 15 January, the 'alliance of rupture' agreed on a verbal pact to oppose the ruling coalition candidate, Lionel Zinsou, during the second round of the election. For now, the FCBE-PRD-RB alliance seems united behind its candidate, but the situation within the 'alliance of rupture' remains uncertain.

Given the results of the first round, and taking into consideration the ongoing negotiations since the results were announced by the Constitutional Court on 13 March, Talon seems to be in a stronger position than Zinsou.

The 'rupture alliance' candidates, who back Talon, gained more than 63% of the vote after the first round - and Talon has also received the support of more than 20 unsuccessful first-round candidates.

On 14 March these candidates - including Sébastien Ajavon, who came third in the first round with 22.96% of the votes cast - signed a memorandum of understanding to support Patrice Talon in the second round.

Talon's performance is even more remarkable given that he came out second in the first round, even though he is running as an independent candidate.

Nevertheless, changes within the alliance - or a possible about-turn in favour of Lionel Zinsou - cannot be excluded. Moreover, it is not certain that grassroot voters will vote in line with party leaders' expectations.

Benin's political landscape will change significantly after the second run. The first round took place against a generally peaceful backdrop, and the challenge is now to conduct a similarly peaceful second round, and ensure transparency and credibility of the results.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the president elect will have the important responsibility to bring together Benin's various political forces to address the challenges of poverty, youth unemployment, corruption and internal security, among others.

Ella Jeannine Abatan, Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar

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