Voters in Benin Boycott Unopposed Parliamentary Elections
Last Sunday, scores of people abstained from voting in Benin’s unopposed parliamentary elections. Only two parties, the Republicans and the Progressive Union, both of which are loyal to President Patrice Talon, were represented. There was no opposition candidate to choose from.
“It’s not an election,” said Eugene Azatassou of the Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin. “It’s a mockery which is burying our democracy.”
Candidate choices have not always been this dismal. Up until recently, Benin’s political arena saw participation by more than 20 parties. That was before President Talon and his ruling party introduced a new electoral code which sought to consolidate hundreds of political parties into simpler blocs. This electoral code accomplished just that, whittling down the number of eligible political parties significantly — to just two. As an example, new electoral laws mean that a party has to pay about $424,000 just to field a list for parliament.
Many people expected President Talon to postpone the elections “to give the opposition time to meet the new requirements.” However, he announced to the nation on April 11 that he “did not have the power to interfere in the electoral process.”
In recent weeks, protests emerged across the country in reaction to the new electoral rules. Security forces responded by cracking down on, and arresting, activists and journalists taking part. Many members of opposition parties were arrested during these protests. One person was even killed during clashes between protesters and security forces in the northern town of Kilibo.
In these recent elections, the citizens of Benin were urged by their government to “fulfil their duty as citizens” by voting to elect 83 new members of parliament. Instead, voters from all parties — not just the opposition — boycotted the polls to further demonstrate their discontent.
“I’m not a fierce opponent, I actually support President Talon,” said Wilfrid Pokini, a trader in Porto Novo. “But I do not support this election - an unopposed election, what is that? It is going too far.”
But the recent protests and low voter turnout were seemingly met with retaliation on Sunday when access to the Internet, social media, and messaging apps were shut down. Spacetel, the country’s leading internet provider, was shut down as well as popular apps like Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, and WhatsApp. Even virtual private networks, which people can use to circumvent online censorship, were made inaccessible.
“While the global debate on the role of social media continues, says NetBlocks Director Alp Toker, “withdrawing these services suddenly on the day of elections is bound to significantly impair the democratic process.”
Human rights groups like Amnesty International are speaking out against the denial of access to the internet, claiming that “internet shutdowns are a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression.”
Though Benin is known as one of Africa’s most stable democracies, it has recently joined the ranks of countries like Sudan, the DRC, and Zimbabwe in experiencing internet shutdowns at the hands of the government in response to political opposition.
Many worry that the recent election is setting a dangerous precedent. “We are getting into a cycle of excluding some parts of the country in the electoral process,” said journalist Leonce Gamai.