Cotonou – Benin voted for a new parliament on Sunday with opposition candidates authorised to stand for the first time in four years under President Patrice Talon, although turnout was muted.
Sunday’s election is a key test for the West African nation, where Talon’s supporters say he has ushered in political and economic development, while critics argue his mandate has eroded democracy.
The streets of Cotonou, the economic capital, were calm and all markets and shops were closed, AFP reporters said.
Polling stations were due to close at 4:00 pm (15:00 GMT), but a civil society electoral platform said many delays had been reported.
The last legislative elections in 2019 were marked by deadly violence, record abstention and a total shutdown of the internet – rare events in Benin, once praised as a bastion of democracy in the region.
The opposition was unable to participate in the 2019 polls.
Due to a tightening of the voting rules, only two movements allied to the president were authorised to compete, bringing about a parliament entirely won by Talon’s supporters.
This time, seven political parties – including three claiming to be in opposition – were allowed to participate.
‘Everything is fine’
“We are once and for all drawing a line under our recent political history,” Talon told reporters after casting his ballot in Cotonou.
Parties winning more than 10 percent of the vote will share out the 109 parliament seats, according to a proportional system. The results are expected within the next week.
“We are confident because we are from the presidential movement. Everything is fine,” said 22-year-old Hamdan Moussa, a representative of pro-government party the Republican Bloc.
But turnout – historically low in 2019 – appeared slow again on Sunday morning at polling stations visited by AFP in Cotonou and other areas.
The civil society electoral platform, which mobilised more than 700 observers, also reported a low morning turnout before an “improvement” in the afternoon.
“People no longer have too much hope, they are afraid of some trickery,” said Bawa Alimiyao, 40, in front of a primary school in Cotonou.
“This government disappointed me, we had hope. We are waiting for change and we need deputies representative of the people.”
Fadolo Enagnon, a 32-year-old voter in the southern town of Zagnanado, said many people struggled to find their voting booths and that the online verification website had crashed.
Main opponents jailed
A wealthy businessman, Talon was elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2021.
Most of his main opponents are either in prison or in exile.
Reckya Madougou was sentenced to 20 years in prison for “terrorism”, while Joel Aivo – an academic – was jailed for 10 years for “conspiracy against the authority of state” in December 2021.
Both were tried by a special court dealing with terrorism and economic crimes, known as the CRIET. Critics say the court, created by Talon’s government in 2016, has been used to crack down on his opponents.
Around 6.6 million voters were eligible to elect lawmakers on Sunday, including at least 24 women – at least one per constituency – according to a new electoral code.
Regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States said it deployed 40 observers in all regions of Benin to support and monitor the election.
Beyond the opposition’s drive to reclaim seats in parliament, Sunday’s election will impact the future of some of the other institutions in the small country, which sits between Nigeria and Togo on the Gulf of Guinea.
The mandate of the Constitutional Court ends this year and, three years before the 2026 presidential ballot, the court’s composition is crucial as it oversees decisions on elections.
Four judges are appointed by lawmakers while the other three are chosen by the president.