By: Rivka (Becky) Zelikson
On April 28, 2019, Benin held its scheduled Parliamentary Elections. The elections were highly controversial, as for the first time in Benin’s democratic history, citizens were not given the choice to vote for any candidates unaffiliated with the current President, Patrice Talon. Only two party blocs were permitted by the election commission to contest the election: The Republican Bloc, which gained 56.20% of the vote (47 seats), and the Progressive Bloc, which won 43.8% of the vote (36 seats).
Benin has a unicameral parliament, the National Assembly, which is composed of 83 members who are directly elected using a proportional representation system and serve four-year terms. Before 2018, there were between 200-250 registered political parties in the country. However, the parliament amended the electoral code in September 2018, imposing an unusually high 10% threshold for party lists to win representation in the parliament. In addition, the candidate registration fees were increased from USD$15,000 to USD$443,000. These changes were meant to reduce the number of parties down to four, but due to the Constitutional Court introducing additional administrative requirements for parties to qualify only 21 days prior to election day, all opposition parties applications were rejected, leaving only two blocs on the ballot.
In addition to the legal changes, the government also suppressed the democratic nature of the elections by outlawing protests against the change to the electoral code. Police subsequently used tear gas and arrested those who did protest. Moreover, on election day all social media was blocked, and later all internet connectivity shut down across the country.
Voters saw these actions by the government as an insult to democracy, and many heeded the calls of ex-Presidents Nicephore Soglo and Thomas Boni Yayi to boycott the election. This resulted in the lowest voter turnout in Benin’s history, at 27.12% of registered voters. (Voter turnout has never been below 50% and the previous election saw a turnout of 65.88%.)
Prior to and on election day, there were multiple violent incidents. In Tchaourou, a polling station and ballot boxes were burnt. In addition, the government mobilized tanks around ex-President Yayi’s house, and fired live fire on protesters who were running away. Two deaths and 206 incidents were reported during the election. These incidents prevented voting from taking place in 39 of the country’s 546 districts.
Women’s Political Participation
Since the 2015 election, women held 7 out of the 83 seats in Parliament, comprising 7.23% of the National Assembly. In 2011, Parliament attempted to pass a gender quota of 20% women, but the legislation was later nullified by the Constitutional Court. Therefore, there is currently no gender quota at either the national or sub-national levels.
Consequently, out of the 166 candidates put forward by the two eligible party blocs, only 14 were women, i.e 8.4% of candidates. The Republican Bloc put forward 8, and the Progressive Bloc 6. Not only was the number of female candidates abysmally low, only 3 of the 8 Republican Bloc parties said they were in a position where winning the seat was even possible for them.
These predictions turned more or less accurate, as at the time of writing only 5 women won a seat in the 8th Legislature, putting female representation at 6.0%. Thus, female representation in Parliament is continuing to drop, as it has been since 2010, when women represented 10.8% of elected representatives.
While the exact voter turnout for women at the election was not available, Women’s organizations and female scholars were vocal in the days prior to and after the election. Two days before election day, a large coalition of women’s CSOs called for citizens to maintain the peace, stating:
"As citizens we are called to show responsibility and maturity to maintain peace, in this circumstance of imminent parliamentary elections taking place against a backdrop of political crisis, with threats to peace and security, and safety of people. On April 28, the fulfillment of the citizen's duty must not endanger the population. Everyone will have to act calmly, and not respond to any provocation or invitation to disturb peace. [...] We would like to recall that the risks involved in the use of violence and attacks directed against peace are: the interruption of education, the closure of markets, the breakdown of food supplies, drinking water, energy, the difficulty of access to health care and the rise of all forms of violence.”
Independent of these CSOs, the President of the National Institute for the Advancement of Women (INPF), Vicentia Boco, denounced the number of women in the new Assembly. She also criticized the electoral reforms, saying that she has always considered these reforms a decoy because, "our brothers who are legislators are not ready at all to give us the smallest jump seat".
Outside of the electoral process, Benin had previously taken various steps to promote gender-equality, at least on paper. Benin ratified CEDAW in 1992 and ratified the Maputo Protocol in 2005. Between 2009 and 2013, Benin also introduced various reforms in Land Law, increasing women’s access to land. Additionally, its 2009-2019 National Health Development Plan included provisions to promote access to reproductive health care and contraceptives. However, the country has no National Action Plan for the Implementation of UNSCR 1325, which protects women during armed conflict. Benin also ranks 146th out of 160 countries on the UNDP Gender Inequality Index (GII), suggesting implementation of these protocols and policies is far from finished.
The 2019 Parliamentary Elections in Benin saw major upheaval in a country that was previously seen as a role model for democracy in Africa. Changes to the electoral code dramatically reduced the number of parties able to contest the election and increased the financial burden on candidates. Only two party blocs were permitted by the election commission to put candidates forward, and both blocs were supporters of the current President. The Progressive Bloc received 47 seats and The Republican Bloc received 36 seats of the 83 available. However, these results were based on the votes of only 27.12% of eligible voters, as many shunned the elections in protest, and others were prevented from voting due to violence on election day. Women’s participation was also low, resulting in a decrease in seats held by women in the National Assembly, from 6 down to 5 (6%). At the time of writing, former Presidents, activists, and the international community are still calling to annul these results and hold an election where opposition parties can be allowed to contest. Others are calling for the President Talon to initiate dialogue with members of the opposition to come to compromises moving forward and take steps to appease the public and prevent the crumbling of Benin’s democracy.