The election was Talon’s and Zinsou’s first time running for public office. Talon is the richest businessman in Benin, whose previous connections to politics included financing the elections of outgoing President Thomas Boni Yayi and using his political connections to build his business empire. For example, in 2008, two years after Boni Yayi assumed the presidency, Talon bought 10 cotton ginneries that were under state control, giving him a near monopoly in the country’s main industry.
Zinsou, born in France to former Beninois president Émile Zinsou, spent most of his career working in finance in France, although he was a special adviser to Boni Yayi from 2006-2011, before he was appointed prime minister in June 2015.
In addition to being novice candidates, Zinsou and Talon each had other shortcomings. Critics of Zinsou called him an outsider “parachuted” in by France, the country’s former colonial power. Talon also spent most of the past three years in France, whither he fled after accusations of involvement in a presidential assassination plot against Boni Yayi, with whom he had a falling out. Talon criticized Boni Yayi for seeking a third term; Boni Yayi accused Talon of embezzling millions of dollars in public cotton fertilizer subsidies.
Zinsou was considered by many to be the front-runner among 33 candidates who contested the election’s first round on March 6. Zinsou won a plurality in that contest with 27 percent of the vote. In addition to being the chosen successor of Boni Yayi, Zinsou was also endorsed by the country’s main opposition party, led by Adrien Houngbedji, who placed second or third in the previous four presidential elections (Houngbedji was precluded from running in 2016 by a constitutional age limit), and by the party that supported the country’s first president since multiparty elections were reintroduced.
Although three of the country’s largest parties endorsed Zinsou, 24 of the 31 candidates that did not make it to the second round endorsed Talon.
What Benin’s 2016 presidential election means for democracy in Africa
Apart from its interesting characters, the 2016 election is notable for its significance for democracy in Africa. Political scientists Michael Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle’s celebrated book, Democratic Experiments in Africa, opens with a long description of the 1989 downfall of Mathieu Kérékou, who had led Benin since 1972; “Kérékou’s downfall was … an early harbinger of unprecedented political changes soon to follow all over the continent.”
Kérékou’s defeat in the 1991 presidential election by Nicephore Soglo was among the first of many African “founding elections,” and it was one of the first electoral defeats of an African incumbent president. Since then, Kérékou in turn defeated Soglo; Boni Yayi won in 2006; and now Talon has won in 2016, giving Benin four electoral turnovers, more than any other country in Africa’s recent wave of democracies. Many scholars consider electoral turnover of the executive a key indicator of democracy, and Benin’s success in peacefully electing successive new presidents without interruption is a sign that Benin is among Africa’s greatest democratic successes.
However, replacing a president through elections is not the only measure of democratic quality. Another is the strength of political parties, and here Benin falls short. In none of Benin’s presidential elections has an incumbent been defeated by a candidate from an opposition party. Soglo ran as an independent when he beat Kérékou in 1991, and Kérékou ran as an independent when he defeated Soglo in 1996. When Kérékou was term-limited out of the 2006 election, Boni Yayi won running as an independent, and now that Boni Yayi is term-limited, Talon has won running as an independent. Rather than winning with the support of a strong party, Talon, like Boni Yayi, won with support from the business sector (Yayi Boni had many business supporters from a decade heading the West African Development Bank) and a coalition of supportive smaller parties.
Although Benin’s parties may not be institutionalized, its electoral rules are, particularly in the area of presidential term limits. Since 1990, most African countries have imposed constitutional term limits, but several presidents have eliminated them, including the president in Benin’s neighbor Togo. Both Kérékou and Boni Yayi considered attempting a third term but were blocked by popular opposition to such plans. Although Benin’s democracy has room for growth, its ability to regularly and peacefully replace its presidents is a role model for many of its neighbors.
Tyson Roberts is a lecturer in political science and international studies at the University of California at Irvine. He also writes a blog about politics in ECOWAS (West African) countries.