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Benin – Expert Briefing by Ella Abatan

  • Benin is a presidential republic in which the president is the head of state and government
  • Although the constitution does not provide for the post of prime minister, Benin has had three prime ministers –Adrien Houngbédji (1996-1998), Irénée Pascal Koupaki (2011-2013), and Lionel Zinsou (2015 – present). The legality of their appointment was decided by the Constitutional Court’s decision DCC 96-020 of 26 April 1996, which states that the president can appoint his ministers and confer on one of them the title of prime minister
  • Benin became a multiparty democracy after the February 1990 National Conference
  • Elections are held every five years, with presidents limited to two terms in office
  • Benin has a unicameral parliament. Following the 26 April 2015 legislative election, the ruling party Les Forces Cauris Pour un Benin Emergent (FCBE) holds 33 of the 83 seats in parliament. The remaining 50 seats are divided among opposition groups, most notably: Union fait la Nation – 13 seats, Parti du Renouveau Democratique (PRD) – 10 seats, and Alliance Renaissance du Benin-Reveil Patriotique – 7 seats
  • The first round of the presidential election is scheduled for 28 February 2016, and the second round for 13 March 2016
  • Follow the election on Twitter using the hashtags #Vote229, #Benin

Outgoing President Boni Yayi - Photo credit: AFP

Outgoing President Boni Yayi – Photo credit: AFP

Between 1960 and 1972, a succession of military coups in Benin saw power change hands ten times. This period of instability was brought to an end on 26 October 1972 when Major Mathieu Kérékou seized power. He established a military dictatorship, which in 1975 became a one-party state based on strict Marxist-Leninist principles. He, along with his Parti de la révolution populaire béninoise (PRPB), remained in power until 1991.

Kérékou’s grip on power showed signs of weakening from the mid-1980s as growing civil unrest and student riots emerged. In response, worried about his declining power, Kérékou introduced several socio-economic and political reforms. Most significantly, in February 1990 he abandoned one-party rule and convened a National Conference that would eventually commit Benin to multiparty democracy. A new constitution, ratified by 96.9% of voters in a popular referendum, was adopted on 10 December 1990. It set out the provisions for presidential and legislative elections.

Benin’s first democratic presidential election took place in March 1991. Kérékou lost to Nicéphore Dieudonné Soglo who took 67.5% of the vote cast in the second round to become the country’s first democratically elected president. But Kérékou stayed in politics and five years later was elected president, remaining in power for two consecutive terms. In the 1999 and the 2003 legislative elections he was supported by a coalition of parties. The coalition won 41 of the 83 seats in parliament in 1999, and increased its dominance of the legislature in 2003, winning 54 seats, 31 of which were won by Kérékou’s own party l’Union pour le Bénin du Futur (UBF).

Speculation that Kérékou would seek to change the constitution ahead of the 2006 election to allow him a third term in office proved to be unfounded. The 2006 presidential election saw Yayi Boni, an independent candidate supported by a number of small parties, become Benin’s third democratically elected president. In 2011, Yayi Boni was re-elected with 53% of the vote, winning without the need for a run-off for the first time in Benin’s democratic history. Despite formal complaints about the process from opposing candidates Adrien Houngbédji and Abdoulaye Bio Tchané, Benin’s Constitutional Court upheld and certified the election results.

Since the 2011 vote, several electoral reforms have been implemented to further improve the process. A new electoral code was adopted on 25 November 2013 and the Commission Électorale Nationale Autonome (CENA) was made a permanent institution.

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election reports persisted that Yayi Boni would seek to amend the constitution and stand for a third term. These rumours adversely affected his party’s performance in the 2015 legislative elections. The FCBE performed poorly in urban strongholds, losing its absolute majority in parliament: it now holds 33 seats, a decrease from 41 in 2011.

Shortly after the legislative vote, Yayi Boni formally declared his intention to stand down in the face of public and internal party pressure. On 26 November 2015 he announced his chosen successor, the current prime minister, Lionel Zinsou. A Franco-Beninese whose career includes spells as an advisor to former French prime minister Laurent Fabius, as an investment banker at Rothschild, and as head of PAI Partners in Paris. Zinsou’s designation as the FCBE’s presidential candidate is a potentially divisive choice. He retains strong links with France, but leading opposition parties, the PRD and Renaissance du Bénin (RB), have since expressed support for him as the “consensus candidate”.

The 2016 presidential elections will see Benin elect its fourth president. In the absence of traditional heavyweights, and with the incumbent standing down, there is uncertainty as to who will emerge victorious. Competing against Zinsou will be another former prime minister Pascal Irénée Koupaki, former presidential candidate Abdoulaye Bio Tchané and businessman Patrice Talon who financed Yayi Boni’s election campaigns in 2006 and 2011. A close race is predicted, the result of which may prove to be an important test for democratic consolidation in Benin.

Ella Abatan is a Junior Fellow at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Dakar, Senegal