The word “Democracy” holds far more than its definition, it represents a promise. The promise of control over one’s own life, control of government systems, and most importantly, the knowledge that a single voice, a single vote, has inherent value. What can it be called then, if an election is almost guaranteed to be won before a single vote is cast? This is the question that the citizens of the Republic of Benin have been faced with under President Patrice Talon multiple times since his election and still is the case in the lead up to the 2021 election. While Benin was formerly looked at as a Democratic success story with the strength of its institutions, the election of President Patrice Talon and the subsequent government policies enacted have eroded the democratic norms of the country. Combined with the recent impact of COVID-19 during an election cycle, the Beninese election is one of mounting frustration and a precarious balance of governmental legitimacy. With the election looking grim, the people of Benin are left to wonder, is this their new normal?
According to Freedom House’s historical rankings, while in 2019 Benin was able to maintain its status of “free” at 79/100, it has now plunged to 66/100 and joined the “partially free” category for 2020 with an expected fall again in 2021. Current President Patrice Talon was elected in 2016 running as an independent candidate after being the chief financial backer of his opponent, former president Thomas Boni Yayi for years. President Talon’s early political career was full of controversy. He fled to France when he was charged with embezzlement, and later was accused of and subsequently pardoned in an independent murder plot targeting President Yayi. Very notably, one of Talon’s campaign promises in 2016 was to reduce the term of the presidency to 5 years, however now 5 years later, Talon is running with no competition.
The stage was set for an uncompetitive election to occur in the aftermath of the 2019 Parliamentary elections. Despite having an incredibly diverse political makeup with roughly 39 registered parties, due to new regulations, “Opposition candidates were barred from running, and only two parties, both loyal to Talon, won seats in parliament – Union Progressiste won 47 seats, and the Bloc Républicain won 36.” Not only is this clear suppression of opposing parties, but it also solidifies the Presidents’ majority support within the legislature to allow for him to be able to pass these policies.
The people showed their discontent by refusing to cast the votes that allowed them no choice. There was no opposition candidate on the ballot in 2019 and consequently, three-quarters of the country’s five million registered voters stayed at home. Since becoming a Democracy, Benin’s participation before this point had never been below 50 percent of registered voters which shows a clear delineation of the trust of voters in the system under President Talon. This trust was further eroded when the President sent the military to disperse the protests. The military reportedly, “responded with force, firing live rounds into the crowd. At least four people were killed.” It is the right of every citizen to be able to peacefully protest, and with the violence which occured in 2019, the government of Benin was internationally condemned, notably by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The Benin 2021 Election is already partially underway with the commencement of voting for regional elections. In May 2020, local elections took place in the wake of public disapproval in reaction to dangerous polling sites during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this election, out of all of the political parties which exist in Benin, there was only one party which ran in opposition to the President which is known as the Forces Cauris pour un Bénin Emergent (FCBE). This election was so critical because local elections in Benin also help to determine the candidates for the presidential election; but with only one opposition party there truly were no options. This election was also formally condemned by the regional African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights which put out a statement saying that the vote should be suspended. In the aftermath, the Talon controlled government chose to disregard the ruling and sever the majority of its ties with the court to express its disagreement.
In a system this corroded, the question remains, what is the opinion of the people and how are they advocating for themselves? Largely their response has taken the form of protests, boycotting the elections, and also writing and organizing a fully fledged new Constitution titled “Manifeste pour la restauration de l’ordre démocratique et républicain au Bénin” (“Manifesto for the Restoration of Democratic and Republican Order in Benin.”) This document’s very existence showcases the organized pushback from the people. The most important thing established in this document is that it specifically targets the role of Talon in democratic backsliding. Roughly translated into English, one focal point within the document states, “The Political regime in place since 2016 continues to roll back the rule of law while the political opposition, civil society and intermediary bodies are reduced to silence.” This is a critical moment because this statement establishes that in the eyes of the people, President Talon is the cause of the backsliding. Not only does this document showcase the exact civil rights the people feel have been violated, but it also establishes a unitary organization referred to as “CODER-Bénin” to further coordinate and solidify their beliefs. Thus far the document has been amassing signatories and serving as a rallying cry to organize opposition to the President.
The hope within this situation rests on one of the cornerstones of democracy, the dissent of the people in the face of injustice. When people live in a formerly stable democracy such as Benin, they often internalize democratic values and feel empowered to fight for their rights. The popular boycott of the election combined with the written Manifesto is proof that the people are not giving in and not backing down. Despite the challenges presented to them, it seems clear that people are starting to organize in more cohesive ways to reaffirm their democratic institutions. In the absence of any real competition and in a democracy run by an increasingly authoritarian figure, it can be easy to lose hope. What drives the movement against President Talon and the things he stands for lies in the heart of the citizens. If the question to answer is “what is an election in the absence of competition?” the people of Benin have an answer. Resoundingly the solution to this conundrum is through establishing this election not as a vehicle of the state, but as a “resistance in the making.”
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Photo Credit: Africa Briefing Editorial Staff https://africabriefing.org/2019/05/benin-protesters-in-violent-clashes-with-security-forces-after-polemic-polls