This is a guest post by Ulrike Rodgers, Senior Program Manager at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Washington, DC
On March 20, Benin’s approximately 4.7 million voters went to the polls for the second time this month to elect a new president. The first round on March 6 had seen a crowded field with 33 candidates. Five candidates were considered frontrunners: Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, businessmen Patrice Talon and Sébastien Ajavon, former Prime Minister Pascal Irenée Koupaki, and former Minister of Economy Abdoulaye Bio Tchané. Outgoing President Thomas Boni Yayi, in office since 2006, respected Benin’s constitutional two-term limit and did not run for a third five-year mandate. Earlier concerns by the opposition and civil society that he might attempt to change the constitution to run again remained unfounded.
After a lively two-week electoral campaign, none of the top five candidates obtained the necessary 50%+1 on March 6 to win in the first round. Prime Minister Zinsou collected 856,080 votes (27.11 percent), followed by Patrice Talon (746,728 votes or 23.52 percent), Sebastien Ajavon with 693,084 votes, Abdoulaye Bio Tchané with 262,389 votes, and Pascal Irénée Koupaki with 177,251 votes. Turnout was 63 percent. Benin’s National Autonomous Electoral Commission (CENA) confirmed that a second round would be held on March 20.
Shortly after the proclamation of the results of the first round, Sébastien Ajavon announced his support for Patrice Talon in the run-off as the latter faced off against Lionel Zinsou. Talon was also able to enlist the support of Bio Tchané and Koupaki. Bénin’s voters and media impatiently anticipated the run-off on March 20. The country held its breath after the polling stations closed on Sunday night. In the morning of March 21, the CENA published preliminary results: Patrice Talon leads overwhelmingly with 65.39 percent against Lionel Zinsou with 35.61 percent of the votes.
In a historic first, the unsuccessful Zinsou called Patrice Talon during the night from Sunday to Monday — even before the CENA released preliminary numbers — to concede defeat. On Monday, many Beninese citizens reacted publicly with joy and relief over the peaceful conduct of the elections and the perspective of a successful transition.
The election confirmed that a majority of Benin’s voters are ready for profound political change and reforms after President Boni Yayi’s 10 years in office. Lionel Zinsou had been appointed prime minister by the outgoing leader in June 2015 and was seen by many as Boni Yayi’s political heir. Zinsou chose the theme of “Continuity” at the center of his electoral campaign, in stark contrast to Patrice Talon. The successful self-made millionaire and businessman campaigned on the motto of “Change” (Rupture) and has vowed to step down after a single five-year mandate.
Both rounds of the election were observed by a consortium of domestic civil society groups, the Plateforme (www.vote229.org), which deployed some 3350 observers to polling stations country-wide and operated a data collection center (‘Situation Room’) at the Marina Hotel in Cotonou with support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Open Society Initiative West Africa (OSIWA), and other donors. In its preliminary post-election declaration of March 21, the Plateforme commended the CENA, voters and candidates on the overall success and peacefulness of the elections, but also pointed to insufficiencies, such as delayed openings of many of the 13,501 polling stations, the delayed and incomplete distribution of voter cards, isolated cases of ballot stuffing, attempted votes by minors, and vote buying. The Plateforme also noted the positive impact of the presence of representatives of the constitutional court who, for the first time, observed proceedings, and of domestic and international election observers on the overall election climate.
Benin’s incoming president will have to swiftly address a number of economic and social challenges that have shaken the country during the final years of Boni Yayi’s presidency. The country has been hit by economic scandals including its own “Madoff” pyramid investment scheme that defrauded Beninese citizens of 150 million Euro. Last year, the country was paralyzed by a four-month general strike. The next president will have to hit the ground running and institute credible reforms fast to instill confidence in economic recovery and social justice. If the CENA confirms the preliminary results, Patrice Talon – who has pledged to step down after a single term — has an ambitious calendar ahead of him.