- When more than three million Beninese elect their next leader this weekend, neither President Mathieu Kérékou nor his eternal rival, ex-President Nicéphore Soglo, will be an available choice. This time, a new generation will come to power. In the traditionally peaceful Beninese poll, the main concern is whether enough ballot boxes can be supplied and whether the electoral register hides too many surprises.
Both President Kérékou and ex-President Soglo are barred from running at Sunday's election, having passed the constitutional age limit of 70 years for presidential candidates. The chronically ill President seems content with this ban he himself had introduced. His eternal rival also accepts the ban, but has sent his oldest son, Léhadi Vinagnon Soglo to represent him and head his Benin Renaissance (RB) party. Mr Soglo Jr remains one of the hottest candidates to the presidency.
A total of 26 candidates have registered their interest in becoming Benin's next President, giving the electorate a difficult choice. As President Kérékou has not appointed an official crown prince, the race is relatively open. Many see Adrien Houngbedji as the favourite. The head of the Democratic Renewal Party (PRD) has a long political experience and often became third in the many duels between Mr Kérékou and Mr Soglo. Also Bruno Amoussou, who has come fourth on several earlier occasions, is seen as a hot candidate.
Among the 26 candidates, there are also two women running for the Beninese presidency, although they do not belong to the favourites. With the large number of more or less candidates, it is not expected that any bidder will achieve more than 50 percent of the votes, thus necessitating a second poll round between the two most popular candidates.
President Kérékou, who governed Benin as a Marxist one-party state in the 1980s, re-introduced multi-party democracy in 1990. Since that, he has won most elections freely and fairly and most consider Benin as a peaceful model democracy in an otherwise troubled region. Nobody expects this election to be an exception.
The poll is however far from trouble free. The Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA) is hopelessly underfinanced and numerous scandals are running up regarding the organisation of the election. CENA President Sylvain Nouwatin only today had to admit to yet another shortcoming, only 48 hours before the poll:
"We don't have sufficient ballot boxes at the moment," he told the press in Cotonou. Mr Nouwatin said that CENA currently only had some 14,000 ballot boxes to distribute to Benin's total of 17,500 registered polling stations. But, the CENA President promised that "the problem will be resolved" before the poll.
An equally serious problem is the electoral roll, which for financial reasons was not completely updated. At least two versions exist presently, with CENA concluding there are 3.9 Beninese eligible to vote while the government hold there are only 3.6 million. Several districts, where electoral officers complained of lacking payments, have seen abruptions in the updates and thus in the issuing of voter cards.
Many Beninese hold that President Kérékou is responsible for the growing chaos, making an unworthy end of his presidency. In fact, the Cotonou government several times cut the budget for CENA and the elections, from a promised franc CFA 19 billion to a final franc CFA 6.6 billion. Many CENA officials are waiting for their salaries and several projects and investments had to be cancelled.
Observers hope that the results after Sunday's poll will be clear and that all candidates accept CENA's official conclusions. While the integrity of CENA is trusted, many irregularities - from the voter roll to the possible lack of material at polling stations - could affect the final result if only a few votes differentiate key candidates. A legal challenge or a possible re-run to determine the winner could become a painful and expensive affair.
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