The vote is seen as a test of democracy as opposition candidates are authorised to stand in the polls after a four-year absence.
Voters in Benin are heading to the polls for a parliamentary election seen as a test of democracy as opposition parties are back on the ballot after boycotting or being excluded from the most recent presidential and legislative votes.
Benin’s image as a bastion of democracy and stability in West Africa has been dented under President Patrice Talon, who went back on a pledge not to run for another term and oversaw a crackdown on the opposition since coming to power in 2016.
In the vote on Sunday, about 6.6 million voters are eligible to elect 109 deputies, including at least 24 women – at least one per constituency – according to a new electoral code.
Seven parties are competing in the vote, including the Les Democrates party linked to Talon’s predecessor and rival Thomas Boni Yayi.
Boni Yayi’s supporters led protests in 2019 after opposition parties were blocked from the legislative vote for failing to meet strict new eligibility criteria.
“I will vote for this party [Les Democrates] for the rebalance of power,” civil society activist Isidore Odountan, 31, told Reuters news agency in the largest city Cotonou.
Preliminary results, which are expected on January 11, may also be an indicator of the strength of the various political forces jostling to succeed Talon. The next presidential election is due in 2026 when the next parliamentary vote will also be held.
Talon does not belong to any party but is supported by the two parties currently in power in parliament – the Bloc Republicain and Union Progressiste le Renouveau.
There is no immediate sign the vote will see protests like in 2019 or those that broke out in 2021 against Talon’s decision to seek re-election, said political analyst Expedit Ologou, head of Beninois think tank Civic Academy for Africa’s Future.
“The atmosphere seems calm, peaceful, friendly, fraternal in most areas of the country,” he told Reuters.
Under Talon, the political protests have been met with deadly police violence, while politicised prosecutions and other legal tactics have been used to stifle the opposition, US democracy watchdog Freedom House said in its 2022 report.
Talon has denied targeting political opponents or violating human rights.
With more parties on the ballot, turnout should return to normal levels of about 60 percent after slumping to just 27 percent in 2019, Ologou said.
Regional security may be higher up in voters’ concerns in this election as Benin, alongside neighbouring Togo and Ivory Coast, has seen increasing attacks from armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) as violence creeps south from the Sahel countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The insecurity and higher living costs linked to the war in Ukraine pose a threat to Benin’s recent economic gains, the International Monetary Fund warned last July.
Benin’s agriculture-dependent economy has rebounded since the coronavirus pandemic, growing more than 7 percent in 2021 and the first half of 2022. But the country of 12 million remains one of the poorest in the world with one-fifth of the population living on less than $1.90 per day, according to the World Bank.
Beyond the opposition’s drive to reclaim seats in parliament, Sunday’s election will affect the future of some of the other institutions in the small country, which sits between Nigeria and Togo.
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.
Talon, a wealthy businessman, was elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2021.