Benin: Presidential Election 2021
On the 11th of April, 2021, a Presidential Election was held in Benin. Two days later, the provisional first-round results released by the national electoral commission credit the incumbent president, Patrice Talon, with 86.37% of the votes, awarding him with his second Presidential term. His two opponents, Alassane Soumanou-Paul Hounkpè, from the FCBE party, and Corentin Kohoué, running as an independent, respectively won 11.29% and 2.35% of the votes. The voter-turn out rate is currently reported to be 50.17%. Benin’s constitutional court is due to verify the final results on the 20th of April after reviewing any candidate appeals.
The previous 2016 Presidential Election saw Talon elected in the second round of voting against Lionel Zinsou, who was Prime Minister at the time. One of Talon’s initial campaign promises was to reduce presidential mandates from two, to just one five-year term, through constitutional reform to reduce presidential “complacency”. However, the Benin parliament later blocked this reform so as to not set a precedent of a president modifying the constitutional terms of their own mandate. Talon then reversed his promise by running again for this year’s election.
A new electoral code introduced by the government in 2018 created a high electoral threshold of 10% of the national vote to enter parliament and the deposit required for a parliamentary listing was increased from 8.3million francs to 249 million francs (approximately USD$15,000 to USD$443,000). These changes were made with the aim of reducing the number of political parties which at the time numbered around 200. Consequently, during the 2019 Parliamentary Elections, Talon’s government only allowed two pro-government parties to run and excluded all opposition parties. The opposition parties thus boycotted the election and called for citizens to do the same, leading to the lowest voter turn-out ever recorded at 23%. Protests held before and after the parliamentary election were met with violence from security forces who fired tear gas and live ammunition, whilst protestors burnt vehicles. Amnesty International condemned “the wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists and the repression of peaceful protests”, including the deaths of four protestors.
Echoing the parliamentary elections, in the lead up to the 2021 Presidential Election, the incumbent president was technically the only candidate allowed to run. Subsequently, Talon promised to "do everything" to organize an inclusive, open ballot for his opponents to obtain nomination, a move seen by opposition parties as the president's way to "cherry pick" his challengers, of which ultimately there were only two. In contrast, the 2016 Presidential elections saw 30 candidates run for office. Many opposition figures have accused the government of authoritarianism under President Talon and are either in exile or barred from office. Protests prior to April’s election, in areas which are seen to be opposition strongholds, again saw clashes with police and two protestors died in the City of Save. An association of civil society groups, which deployed more than 1,400 election observers, said in its preliminary statement on Sunday that “attempts to pressurise, intimidate, threaten, corrupt or harass voters were observed across the entire country”.
Women’s political participation
Ms Reckya Madougou, the leader of Benin’s largest opposition party and the first woman presidential candidate for a major party was arrested on March 3rd 2021, accused of "planning to assassinate several political figures" and “financing terrorism”, according to a government spokesperson. Her candidacy, alongside 17 others’, for the April Presidential Election had already been rejected under the electoral commission reforms. Madougou has previously served as the Minister of Microfinance, Youth Employment and Women as well as the Minister of Justice in Boni Yayi’s cabinet. From 2004 to 2006, she ran a civil society campaign ‘Touche pas à ma Constitution’ (Don’t touch my Constitution) which inspired similar campaigns in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cameroon. In 2016, she became the special advisor to Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé, before returning to Benin for the 2021 election. She has not yet been released from prison despite calls from other opposition members such as Joël Aïvo who declared "Reckya Madougou is not a terrorist. She only returned home to serve her country". On the 4th of April 2021, a Beninese judge who has gone into exile stated that Madougou’s arrest was “solely political”.
Within President Patrice Talon’s government, he nominated Mariam Chabi Talata Zimé Yérima as his running mate for April’s election, who was a surprise choice, after apparently drawing her name from a hat. Now elected as Vice President, she is the first woman in the country’s history to hold this position. She is a Professor of Philosophy and has been involved in politics since 2001.
In 2015, former President, Boni Yayi, committed the state to ongoing programmes for women in political and private sector leadership. There has previously been no electoral quota for women in Benin; in 2011, Parliament attempted to pass a gender quota of 20% women, but the legislation was later nullified by the Constitutional Court. However, following the 2019 parliamentary elections, constitutional amendments were passed to reserve 24 seats for women in the next legislative term. In January 2021, the Inter Parliamentary Union has ranked Benin 172nd out of 188 countries for percentage of women in unicameral parliaments with only seven out of 83 or 8.4% of seats being filled by women. Regarding total women in ministerial positions, Benin ranks 94th with five women out of 24 positions, or 20.8%. Freedom House reports that whilst, “Women and minority groups are not legally excluded from political participation, cultural factors limit women’s engagement” such as “in some rural areas, cultural traditions force women to remain indoors for extended periods”.
No one is particularly surprised by what Talon is labelling a “knock-out” win, with a local restaurant-owner stating “This election was just folklore…We are not waiting for the results because they were already known in advance. After the elections, everything will return to order.” The government’s targeting and repression of opponents has led to Freedom House downgrading Benin from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ and, despite Mariam Chabi Talata Zimé Yérima’s historic election, state that women continue to experience discrimination in political participation, employment and access to credit, health care and education. Opposition leaders are calling on President Talon and his government for “inclusive” elections in which all can freely participate.