Against all the odds Benin will go to the polls on Sunday for the first round of its presidential elections. The polls had already been delayed once due to issues with the electoral rolls, while a second delay looked imminent after a postponement request by 11 of the 14 presidential candidates. The elections were only salvaged after two former presidents stepped in to broker an eleventh hour compromise.
Voters will almost certainly be back two weeks after the elections for a second round of polls, before returning again a couple of weeks later for Parliamentary elections. Benin has highly competitive elections, but it is likely that the true competition will come in the second round – which will almost certainly be a run-off between incumbent, Thomas Yayi Boni, and Adrien Houngbedji. While a coalition of minor opposition parties have formed around the Chairman of the West African Development Bank (BOAD), Abdoulaye Bio Tchané, the third party campaign will most likely not trouble Boni and Houngbedji, although it will probably ensure a second round of voting is required.
So the elections will be a rerun of the 2006 presidential election: long time centre-right opposition activist Houngbedji vs fairly-new-on-the-scene, technocratic, evangelical protestant former banker, Boni. Last time Boni got the upper hand, winning 26% of the vote to Houngbedji’s 24% in the first round, and then skilfully moving into the centre ground to hoover up the votes of other candidates and run out a comfortable 75% to 25% winner. Then in 2007’s parliamentary elections, Boni’s Force Cowrie for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) party won comfortably with 35 seats; Houngbedji’s Democratic Renewal Party (PRD) were a poor third with only 10.
But since then things have all been going Houngbedji’s way, prompting suggestions that we could be in for a much tighter race this time. Firstly, Boni’s lack of a majority in Parliament means he has failed to deliver promised economic reforms. He was further damaged when five members of the ruling FCBE splintered off and joined the opposition. Meanwhile, almost all the opposition parties in Parliament have unified around Houngbedji in a broad coalition called the Union Fait la Nation (UFN). The second placed party – the Alliance for a Dynamic Democracy (ADD) – was itself a broad coalition of opposition parties, and once the framework of the UFN had been established, they dissolved into their component parts leaving the PRD as the largest force within the UFN.
Moreover, for many years the political scene in Benin has been dominated by two giants of yesteryear: former Marxist dictator and two-term president Mathieu Kérékou, and democracy campaigner and first ever democratic president Nicéphore Soglo. Now both men are in their late seventies their influence is waning, and the parties which acted as their personal vehicles are fading in popularity. This is creating a space that Houngbedji is happily colonising: of the 14 Presidential candidates, 11 will back Houngbedji over Boni. There will be no repeat of Boni’s 2006 second round mopping up of the votes of all the other candidates.
In the Beninois historical novel “The Man from Dahomey”, Frank Yerby repeatedly states that the greatest shortcoming in the nation’s government is that the rule of the leader is totally unchallenged. That is emphatically no longer the case.