A polling official cuts the seal of a ballot box during the elections for a new parliament in Cotonou, Benin, on April 28. (Yanick Folly/AFP/Getty Images)

In the weeks before Benin’s April 28 election, police used tear gas to disperse demonstrations led by former presidents Nicephore Soglo and Thomas Boni Yayi, who called for a boycott of the opposition-less election.

The government blocked social media and messaging apps on the Internet. International and domestic observers canceled poll monitoring plans in anticipation of violence — there were two reported deaths and 206 incidents during the election. Boni Yayi called for the election results to be annulled; soldiers in tanks circled his home and fired on hundreds of protesters.

Such events would be unsurprising in some African countries, including neighboring Togo. But these were shocking developments in Benin, a country that sparked a wave of democratization in 1990. The 2019 election fared poorly on two key measurements of democracy, participation and contestation.

Voter turnout in previous elections in Benin never fell below 50 percent, yet only 23 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the April 2019 poll. Voters had little taste for an election devoid of competition when all opposition parties were disqualified.

New election rules pruned the number of parties

President Patrice Talon’s stated goal for Benin’s new electoral code was to reduce the number of registered parties — which had multiplied from 79 in 1991 to 118 in 1998 to more than 250 — down to four.

The country’s wide range of parties reflects Benin’s history, underlying diversity and electoral system. Legislators are elected in a proportional representation (PR) system. Unlike the U.S. single-member-district, winner-take-all style of elections, Benin’s PR system awards seats based on each party’s share of the vote in multi-member districts, enabling small parties to achieve representation.

Benin also has a two-stage presidential vote; if no candidate wins a majority in the first round, two finalists face off in a second round. This encourages many candidates to run — there were 31 in the 2016 presidential race — and then form alliances in the runoff. Benin’s authoritarian past and inclusive democratic transition also played a role in generating parties.

Countries with a large number of legislative parties face the risk of deadlock and lack of accountability. But political scientists also associate multiparty countries in Africa with democracy. Nicolas van de Walle notes that when a party won a majority of legislative seats in African founding elections — a contested election after a long competitive drought — these “dominant parties took advantage of their positions of strength … to consolidate their hold on power.”

In Benin, no party won a majority in the seven legislative elections from 1991 to 2015. In its 1991 founding election, 11 different parties won seats. The largest claimed 19 percent of seats and failed to win a single seat in the following contest.

The lack of a majority party in African founding elections often led to instability — particularly military coups. Yet Benin has remained stable, with no successful coups, although Talon reportedly attempted a coup against Boni Yayi in 2012.

Benin has weak parties, however

Where Benin’s democracy falls short is the weakness of its parties. Despite several democratic alternations of executive power, an opposition party candidate has never won the presidency since the founding election; each new president ran as an independent.

Legislative parties, often centered around a politician aspiring to be president, rotate through pre- and post-electoral alliances. Generally, a party or bloc supporting the president wins a legislative plurality, and six or more parties claim the remaining seats. Here’s an example: The pro-Boni Yayi party Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) won a plurality in each election during Yayi’s presidency.

Two of Benin’s most durable parties each won about 10 percent of the legislative seats in elections since 1991. Their leaders — Adrien Houngbedj of the Democratic Renewal Party and Bruno Amoussou from the Social Democratic Party — helped form a new Bloc of the Presidential Majority to support Talon after his 2016 election.

Talon — the “King of Cotton” — defeated the FCBE candidate in a runoff with support from 24 first-round candidates. The reward for fourth-place candidate Pascal Iréné Koupaki, fifth-place finisher Abdoulaye Bio-Tchané, and supporters of third-place candidate Sebastien Ajavon — the “Chicken King” — was cabinet appointments.

Is Benin’s president taking an authoritarian turn?

Talon’s critics accuse him of various power grabs since his election. Critics viewed his effort to amend the constitution through a “rushed and opaque” legislative process rather than the promised referendum as a ploy to extend his term.

After new Constitutional Court members appointed by the legislature and president elected Talon’s former personal lawyer and minister of justice to head the Constitutional Court, it reversed a recent decision and affirmed Talon’s ban on public sector strikes. When Ajavon formed an opposition party to challenge Talon, a newly formed corruption court, appointed by government decree rather than the prescribed process, sentenced Ajavon in absentia to 20 years in prison for cocaine charges he had been cleared of in 2016, a decision rebuked by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

A new electoral code last year created a number of new requirements, including a dramatically increased financial hurdle. Two new parties supporting Talon were created in December: the Progressive Union, led by Amoussou, and the Republican Bloc, led by Minister Bio-Tchane.

Three months later, the electoral commission announced that these two new parties alone qualified for the election and rejected applications from five other parties, including FCBE, for failing to comply with the new code. For example, Ajavon’s party was rejected for missing a “certificate of conformity,” a requirement created by the Constitutional Court to ascertain compliance with the new code’s strict requirements.

Adam Przeworski famously defines democracy as “a system in which parties lose elections” — democracy thus fails when rules ban opposition parties.

Benin’s new electoral code and decisions by the electoral commission and less-than-independent Constitutional Court resulted in a legislative election with no opposition parties on the ballot. Although opposition parties may survive to compete in the next presidential contest, Benin’s recent poll triggered concerns — and violence — in a country famous for its peaceful democratic elections.

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Tyson Roberts teaches political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. His research interests include African politics, authoritarian institutions, and international political economy.