Benin Heads to the Polls to Elect New President in Stark Contrast to Other African CountriesMarch 7, 2016 in Benin
On Sunday, 6 March Benin went to the polls to choose a new president from a record field of 33 candidates, but with concerns about the distribution of voters’ cards, which had already forced a two-week delay.
Polling began at 0600 GMT in Benin, with international observers assessing the atmosphere as “very calm and very relaxed.” Voting was due to end nine hours later. According to Mathieu Boni, an official from a civil society group that has deployed more than 3,000 election observers, “more than half” of the nearly 8,000 polling stations opened on time. The first results are expected to be released within 72 hours of the vote.
President Thomas Boni Yayi is due to step down after serving a maximum two five-year terms, effectively marking him out amongst some African leaders who have tried to change constitutions in order to ensure third terms in office. While Benin has not seen the levels of political tension that have plagued other recent votes across the country, including in Burundi and Rwanda, where leaders have tested constitutional limits in a bid to stand for a third term, there are concerns that frustrations could rise because of delays in distributing voting cards that have already held up the vote by one week. According to Fidele Marcos, who heads Amnesty International’s Benin branch, “the problem is that many of the old cards had problems that weren’t addressed.” As of Friday, voter identification cards has not been distributed in two of Benin’s twelve administrative districts, where nearly 700,000 voters live.
Campaigning has centered largely on the unemployment, education and economic growth, which has slackened as plummeting oil prices hit Benin’s much larger neighbor and main trading partner, Nigeria. Leading the field is Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, a former economist and investment banker who has received public backing from both the president and the main opposition Democratic Renewal party (PRD). He however faces strong opposition inside the ruling Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) party and from trade unions who say that, having spent much of his life away from Benin’s politics in France, he is an outsider and a poor choice to lead. Other top candidates include ex-prime minister Pascal Irenee Koupaki, Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, a former senior official at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and prominent businessmen Sebastien Ajavon and Patrice Talon. Tchane has promised to create 500,00 jobs every year of the five-year term, while Ajavon states that he will reduce youth unemployment through the creation of business incubators. Both Zinsou and Talon have pledged to reform Benin’s education system. If no candidate wins an outright majority in the first round of polling on Sunday, then the top two finishers will progress on a run-off vote within fifteen days.