Small country, big example; Benin

The Economist

Copyright The Economist
DATELINE: Porto-Novo
Benin’s presidential election
Still an unusual success for democracyófingers crossed
ON March 5th, Benin went to the polls for the fourth presidential election since multi-party democracy was introduced in 1990: no mean achievement in west Africa. Even more impressive was the fact that President Mathieu KÈrÈkou did not stand for re-election, nor did his great rival, NicÈphore Soglo, who was president from 1991-96. Both have passed the constitution’s age limit of 70. That respect for the constitution goes admirably against Africa’s trend for heads of state to change the law to stay even longer in office.
Benin has fewer than 8m people. It is one of the poorest countries on earth. And yet, in Africa, it is also a democratic exemplar. Many of Africa’s former French colonies brought in multi-party democracy only when forced to by the Frenchóin return for more aidóin June 1990. Having abandoned Marxism, Mr KÈrÈkou, Benin’s president and military ruler, not only legalised opposition parties several months before then, but also stood down after his electoral defeat to Mr Soglo in 1991. So Benin became the first African country where an incumbent ran for re-election, lost and graciously bowed out. Since then, democracy has implanted itself strongly in the minds of Benin’s citizens. “Our history is so terrible, with coups and years of problems, that now we all care about democracy very deeply,” says one of them.
Still, the election did not go smoothly. Electoral materials, including voting forms, seals for ballot boxes and even the urns themselves turned up late or not at all, causing most polling stations to open hours late. Although they all then stayed open for the regulation nine hours, election officials were often absent and many had not been properly trained. Mr KÈrÈkou blamed the independent electoral commission, hinting that the errors were not accidental. All the same, turnout was high. Provisional results suggest that Yayi Boni, a banker, is ahead and will be faced in a second round by Adrien HoungbÈdji, a former prime minister and long-time rival of Mr KÈrÈkou. Several other more minor candidates have filed complaints about the election process with the constitutional court.
It is, alas, possible that a second round may not take place. Mr KÈrÈkou has talked darkly of following America’s example in 2000 by taking months to verify the first-round results. His critics say he is stalling for time to handpick a favoured successor to run again if the first round is invalidated. So far, however, his promise to give up power has to be taken at face value. Benin’s democracy-loving people should make him stick to his word: it could be the former general’s greatest legacy.

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