Benin – Debating the benefits of a one-term presidency

With President Patrice Talon keen to keep his campaign pledge that he will not stand for reelection, debate is picking up in Benin over the benefits and drawbacks of a one-term presidency. Businessman and independent candidate Talon ran for president on a promise that he would serve only one term, and won in the second round with 65 percent of the votes. Talon, known as the “King of Cotton” for his fortune made in the cotton industry, repeated the promise at his swearing in ceremony on April 6, 2016. Though the 1990 constitution of Benin allows a president to serve a maximum of two five-year terms, Talon maintains he will only stay one term in the Palais de la Marina, the presidential palace in Cotonou.

President Talon is intent on ensuring that not only he, but also future presidents of Benin serve only one term in office, which according to him would reduce presidential “complacency.” Constitutional reform to improve the functioning of Benin’s political institutions and strengthen governance figured prominently in candidate Talon’s campaign platform. Once elected, he swiftly set up a constitutional review commission on May 6, 2016 which submitted its report on June 28. However, as Ulrike Rodgers writes, the commission deadlocked on whether to include one seven-year term or two five-year presidential terms among its recommended revisions to the constitution, and left the decision with the president. Other important proposed institutional changes include measures to increase the independence and the oversight capacity of the judiciary, and public financing for political parties to reduce the influence of economic interests on politicians.

Arguments for and against

There is far from consensus  on the benefits of reducing presidential term limits, however. This is by far the most controversial of the proposed constitutional changes. The chief advantage according to proponents of the change is that a single presidential mandate would give a sense of urgency and favor a greater concern for the public good; with only one term the president would not be distracted by having to secure support for his reelection. To back their argument, supporters point to Talon’s already significant achievements in  combating corruption – including the firing of public servants with false diplomas and clamping down on police corruption – and implementing decentralization reform that had been in limbo. A faster turn-over at the presidency would also give more political leaders the chance to be elected to the highest executive office, in other words it would favor a greater circulation of political elites.

Opponents counter that a single term would limit accountability as the president does not have to face the electorate again. This could, they argue, be an incentive for single-term presidents to favor their own interests over that of the public. By this logic, President Talon as a wealthy former businessman is in a unique position and constitutional reform cannot be modeled on his behavior. Successors not similarly above financial want are unlikely to be as virtuous. Moreover, opponents to the term reduction express concern that a single mandate is a short time for a political leader to fully exploit his or her leadership potential. A president could be tempted to favor the rise of a dominant party, to be able to continue to influence politics even after leaving office. Critics furthermore contend that changing presidential term limits will open the door for subsequent presidents to similarly tinker with term limit provisions.

Procedures and politics of reform

The full extent of the proposed constitutional changes will be known once they are submitted for approval to the legislature. According to the Minister of Justice, the government is now finalizing and intends to submit a constitutional reform bill to the National Assembly for consideration during an extraordinary session to be called before the end of March. This will not be a brand new fundamental text, but a series of revisions to the current constitution – which is vested with significant legitimacy given its origins in the 1990 National Conference.

President Talon, without his own party to rely on in the National Assembly, must cobble together an overwhelming legislative majority to see his reforms pass. While Talon had initially indicated he wanted to submit his constitutional reform ideas to a referendum, before going to the National Assembly, he was called to order by the Constitutional Court. According to Articles 154 and 155 of the constitution, constitutional revisions must be passed by three quarters (75 percent) of the members of the National Assembly before they can be submitted for final approval in a referendum; should four fifths (80 percent) of legislators approve the bill, a referendum is not needed. A previous ruling by the constitutional court in October 2011, when then President Yayi was exploring options to eliminate term limits as he was coming to the end of his second term, found that presidential terms are among those provisions of the constitution that cannot be changed through a referendum. This would indicate that indeed the president will have to secure an 80 percent legislative majority for his constitutional amendments to be enacted.

Talon has seemingly secured the support of the president of the National Assembly, Adrien Houngbédji. However, in the legislature elected in 2015, the Cauri Forces for an Emerging Benin coalition (FCBE), which supported former President Thomas Boni Yayi (who backed Talon’s opponent in the presidential run-off), remains the largest party with 33 out of 83 seats – enough to block the passage of constitutional reform if the coalition stays together. Some FCBE-leaders have been outspoken critics of the one-term limit initiative, but the FCBE is a fragile coalition, now that Yayi is no longer at the helm of the state. Thus, while Talon has some lobbying to do, he has a good chance that the National Assembly will back his constitutional reform. If it were to pass before April 6, he would have delivered on an important campaign promise during his first year in office – proving his principal argument that one-term presidents are likely to be highly effective.

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