Tag Archives: Benin

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.

Benin – Sets Regional Example in Presidential Election, Votes Peacefully for Change

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.

Benin – Who will benefit from the local polls?

Long-delayed local polls finally took place in Benin on Sunday, June 28th.  Elections for municipal, communal and village level offices that should have taken place in 2013 were delayed by two years due to issues with the electronic voter registry. In the running for Sunday’s elections were candidates from 34 parties, competing for the 1,199 municipal and city councilor seats. The councilors will, in turn, elect 77 mayors, 176 deputy mayors and 546 district leaders. Election day was mostly calm, with low voter turn-out under heavy rains in the southern part of the country. Challenges in the distribution of voter cards and a lackluster campaign may also have contributed to lowering voter enthusiasm.

Given the timing of these elections – eight months ahead of the February 28, 2016 presidential poll – the outcome is closely watched as a bellwether of the support for different political party candidates in the next presidential contest. President Boni Yayi is coming to the end of his second term and cannot stand for reelection. Who the candidate of the ruling coalition, Forces cauris pour un Bénin émergent (FCBE), will be for his succession remains unclear.  Boni Yayi himself has refrained thus far from anointing an heir apparent.

Legislative elections held on April 26, 2015 indicated a loss of support for the ruling coalition. The polls left the FCBE with a relative majority in the National Assembly with 33 out of 83 seats, but down from 41 seats in the last legislature. Even with the two seats of its ally, l’Union pour le Benin (UB), the ruling coalition does no longer control an absolute majority and the position of Speaker went to an opposition leader, Adrien Houngbédji, president of le Parti du renouveau démocratique (PRD). Houngbédji ran for president in 2011 and won 36 percent of the vote against Yayi who was reelected in the first round with 53 percent. The PRD is the third largest party in parliament, with 10 seats, the two other major opposition parties being the Union fait la Nation (UN) with 13 seats, and the RB-PB alliance with 7 seats. Six smaller parties share the remainder of the seats.

Final results from the local polls are yet to be declared by the Autonomous National Election Commission (CENA). Preliminary results from the major cities indicate that the PRD has won the majority of seats in Porto-Novo, the political capital, and is likely to keep its mayor there. In Cotonou, the economic capital, no clear winner is emerging, with the FCBE coming in fourth after the UN, the PRD and the RB.

The results of the local polls will give a strong indication of the relative strength of the various parties at the grass roots level.  Should the negative trend from the legislative polls continue and the FCBE lose its current majority of mayor positions, the outcome of the local elections could influence political alliances at the national level in the lead-up to the presidential race. A loss of majority could lead to fractures within the FCBE as stalwarts within the party could chose to throw their lot with another alliance. It remains to be seen who the opposition front runner will be.  Houngbédji of the PRD has reached the presidential candidate age limit of 70 years. With the political field wide open, the comings months will be of great interest to observers of the Beninese political scene.

Benin – Democracy battered

Not all is well in Benin. The country is rapidly losing its status as an exemplary democracy in West Africa. Socio-economic turmoil, increasing corruption and mounting opposition to the president’s suspected desires for a third term have rocked an otherwise stable nascent democracy.

Recently, a nearly four-month general strike threatened the school year. Four of six unions involved lifted their participation in the strike on April 15, following partial satisfaction of their demands, but maintain their call for the departure of the prefect and the police chief of Cotonou. The two officials are seen as responsible for the violent repression of a December 27, 2013 march demanding better governance and the respect of democratic freedoms.

Since Yayi took power in 2006, the country has been hit by a series of economic scandals, including its own “Madoff” pyramid investment scheme that defrauded Beninese citizens of 150 million Euro. At the end of December 2013, the United States removed Benin from the list of countries eligible for funding from the Millennium Challenge Account, citing increasing levels of corruption.

According to Freedom House, the media has suffered since Yayi’s election, as legal and regulatory structures have been used to restrict media freedom. For example, the director of a private television station was charged with criminal defamation in September 2012 for authorizing the broadcast of comments considered defamatory toward the president. In 2008, the country’s freedom of the press status was degraded from ‘free’ to ‘partly free.’

Reelected in 2011, Boni Yayi has surrounded himself with family members and members of the Pentecostal church of which he is a fervent devotee.  Three of his children serve in the presidency, and his wife’s older brother is Minister of Development, while the Ministers of Justice, of Labor and of the Environment are members of evangelist churches. Family members are not necessarily above all suspicion, as demonstrated by the bizarre alleged attempt by the president’s niece, his family doctor and a former financial sponsor to poison Yayi, in 2012. The niece, the family doctor and the head of the presidential security guard are all in prison, while the business man and former presidential financier, Patrice Talon, has taken refuge in France.

As he approaches the end of his second term in April 2016, his opponents suspect President Yayi of wanting to change the constitution to stay on for another term. A constitutional revision introduced by the government in June 2013, though not touching the two-term presidential term limit, was seen as intended to reset the term clock, by initiating a new republic and thus allowing the president to run for office again under the new constitution. In September 2013, the law committee of the National Assembly (which includes members of Yayi’s party) declared the proposed revisions inadmissible, with reference to procedural irregularities. The bipartisan rejection of the amended constitution is an indication of Yayi’s eroding political support.

Benin has thus far remained on the democratic path since its February 1990 ‘national conference’ which transitioned the country to multi-party democracy and initiated a wave of such conferences in Francophone Africa, modeled on the French États Généraux held in 1789 on the eve of the French revolution. Hopefully, Benin will again set the example by resisting pressure for doing away with presidential term limits, at a time when countries such as Burkina Faso, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) seem to be headed down that path.