YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Over 6.5 million people in Benin are expected to head to the polls today, ostensibly to elect members of a 109-member parliament, but the country’s bishops are calling for a different sort of election that would better reflect popular opinion.
Today’s vote comes four years after a similar election that had a single party sweeping the results, after opposition political parties were sidelined and amid calls for a boycott.
This time around, seven political parties are vying for seats, but four of them belong to what is called “the Presidential majority” allied with incumbent President Patrice Talon, seeding fears that the outcome once again may be pre-determined.
In a statement at the end of a meeting on January 5, a copy of which was sent to Crux, the Catholic bishops of Benin underscored the need for “an electoral process that is transparent, inclusive, democratic and peaceful.”
The clerics also exhorted Catholics, who make up roughly a quarter of Benin’s population, and all people of goodwill to pray for the good conduct of the elections.
It’s a key election with fundamental implications for the country’s future.
First, instead of the usual four years, the mandate of those who will be elected Sunday will last only three years. Political reforms in 2019 harmonized the electoral calendar, and now requires that beginning in 2026, local, legislative and presidential elections will take place at the same time.
Authorities argue that the reform is meant to lower costs. 2019 brought legislative elections, 2020 the election of local councilors and in 2021 a presidential election, giving the impression that “we spend all our time organizing elections,” according to a local election administrator.
Secondly, the 2019 electoral reforms require that a presidential candidate has to be nominated by political parties represented in parliament. The opposition will be working to make forays into parliament in Sunday’s legislatives in order to be able to present candidates in the 2026 presidential election.
To have a share in the number of parliamentary seats, a party must score at least 10 percent of the vote.
The result of Sunday’s elections will be particularly significant for Talon. Re-elected in 2021, his mandate, as per the revised rules, ends in 2026. Political scientist Expédit Ologou said that “the acts of the parliamentarians in the next couple of months will be decisive for the immediate future of the country.”
He said the new parliament will play a key role in determining the composition of members of the Constitutional Court, which is the organ in charge of controlling elections.
The mandates of seven members of the court expire this year. Talon has the power to appoint three members, while parliament appoints four. An opposition victory could mean the power to control the court.
In addition, if the opposition wins, Ologou believes it will be harder for Talon to manipulate his way into a third term by changing the constitution.
“Resorting to a referendum would be extremely complicated,” he says. “It requires a 4/5 majority in parliament to be able to change the constitution. So if the opposition gets more than 1/5 of the seats, it would constitute a minority capable of blocking any attempts by the Talon government to change the constitution.”
With the stakes ever so high, the country’s bishops have called on the people of Benin, irrespective of their political leanings, to “work in favor of reconciliation, peace, justice and national unity by putting the general interest and love of country above any personal interests.”
Besides political and ecclesial issues, the bishops also addressed the country’s social ills, including the high cost of living.
“We are concerned about the high cost of living and the growing poverty in our country,” members of the Benin Episcopal Conference said.
They noted that “a good portion of the population continues to hope for better living conditions to meet their basic needs,” even as they praised the government for recent increases in the salaries of state workers.
During his end-of -year speech to the nation, Talon gave details of the salary increases for state employees.
For instance, a driver who currently earns $100 a week will make $166. Mid-career teachers will see their salaries jump from $180 to $240, while a mid-wife who used to earn $230 will witness their salary rise to $290.
The clerics called on the government to “continue its efforts to improve the living conditions of the less privileged.”
The bishops also talked about what they considered as a “worrying “security situation in the country, it is marked by “robberies, acts of vandalism, thefts, and kidnappings” which they say “continue to disturb the serenity of our peaceful citizens.”
Noting that insecurity continues to slow down the pace of development, the clerics urged the security services to not “lower their guard.”
They called on the people of Benin “to be vigilant and to collaborate with the forces of law and order for more efficiency in order for peace and serenity to return.”