Benin opposition gets green light for legislative election

Benin's opposition, weakened by arrests and the exile of its leaders, has been allowed to participate in January's legislative elections, four years after they were excluded from taking part in the last vote.

Electoral authorities have authorised seven political parties, including three claiming to be opposition, to take part in the January 8 ballot for lawmakers.

Elected in 2016, then re-elected in 2021, Benin's President Patrice Talon has launched all-out political and economic reforms to put his West African country on the path to development.

But his modernization programme has also been accompanied by a significant erosion of democracy, according to the opposition, with its leaders prosecuted, jailed or exiled.

The opposition parties given the green light include the Democrats, who managed to win a last-minute constitutional court ruling on Saturday, allowing its candidates to run.

"The Constitutional Court wanted to spare Benin a new tragedy by accepting that our party finally can go to the elections," said Gandonou Eudes, an activist for the Democrats.

Legislative elections in 2019 ended in clashes that left several people dead, after the opposition was banned and security forces violently repressed its supporters who took to the streets in the centre of the country.

Only the two political parties supporting Talon were allowed to take part.

In 2021, the main opposition leaders also failed to participate in the presidential ballot that re-elected Talon, prompting more protests in opposition strongholds.

Two of the president's main opponents are still in prison, sentenced to heavy sentences.

Reckya Madougou was sentenced to 20 years in prison for "terrorism", while Joel Aivo -- an academic -- was given 10 years in prison for "conspiracy against the authority of state" in December 2021.

"We tried to get on the ballot in 2019, 2020, 2021 -- impossible," said Democrats party chief Eric Houndete, during a meeting this week in the capital Porto-Novo.

Now "our time has come," he said.

"You have the opportunity to choose, to avoid having a one-colour parliament."

The Cauris Forces for an Emerging Benin or FCBE party and the Popular Liberation Movement or MPL party are the two other opposition movements that will take part.

All three will look to win as many seats as possible in the 109-member parliament, which is currently controlled by pro-Talon parties.

"If the legislative elections are transparent, the parties in power will not have an easy task," said Beninese political scientist Expedit Ologou.

For Marie Yaya, a young Democrats activist and former student of opposition leader Joel Aivo, the election should not make us "forget the fate of those who are still languishing in prison".

jmh-aml/pma/ah