Benin heads for twice-delayed polls

2011-03-10 15:17

Cotonou - Benin holds presidential elections on Sunday after the West African nation twice postponed the ballot, with preparations having been far from complete and scores of people left off the voter roll.

President Boni Yayi will be seeking a second term in the vote, with the former banker who promised a crack down on corruption when he entered office in 2006 now under fire over a Ponzi scheme that robbed thousands of their savings.

The election in the former French colony perhaps best known as the heartland of voodoo also follows heavy flooding last year that the United Nations says affected some 680 000 people.

A range of issues led to two postponements of the ballot, including electoral officials' failure to deliver voter cards on time as well as designate and train polling station agents.

February 27 was the initial election date, which was twice pushed back one week.

But it was the electoral roll that drew the most controversy, with the country of 9.2 million people employing an electronic voter list using biometric fingerprinting for the first time.

The opposition alleged that more than a million people were left off the list, while others said the figure was much lower. Police fired tear gas to break up an opposition protest over the issue late last month.

Electoral officials said this week they identified nearly 300 000 people who had sought to register but were unable to do so and began an operation to sign them up on Wednesday. The process was to be wrapped up on Thursday.

The mop-up registration period has drawn criticism from those who say the amount of people allowed to sign up should be higher.

Strong challenge

Despite such issues as well as persistent corruption, Benin politics is seen as having advanced significantly over the last two decades.

Dictator-turned-president Mathieu Kerekou's Marxist rule in the 1970s and 80s led to Benin instituting multiparty democracy in 1990. The 2006 election won by Yayi was generally viewed as free and fair by international observers.

Yayi faces a strong challenge from veteran politician Adrien Houngbedji, backed by many of the country's traditional political elites.

A third candidate, former IMF official Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, could be a spoiler in the race that features 14 contenders. If no candidate scores an absolute majority, a second round will be held two weeks later.

The election has been seen as a battle between old and new generations, with Yayi, 58, viewed as a symbol of change when he took 75% of the vote in 2006's runoff, when he also faced Houngbedji, 69.

However, corruption allegations against him have provided an opening for a potential return by the older generation represented by Houngbedji, who has competed in every presidential race since multiparty democracy began.

"Houngbedji's camp knows that their future is at stake in these elections," said Malick Gomina, head of the Fraternite media group.

"If they lose, it's the political death of an entire generation of politicians who have always been in power and who want to remain there."

Special attention

Yayi, an economist who worked at the Central Bank of West African States, has had anything but a smooth ride during his first five-year term.

He has been hit by a series of corruption scandals, most prominently involving an alleged Ponzi scheme by a firm he was accused of assisting.

The scheme, reminiscent of the Bernard Madoff scandal in the United States, left scores of people in financial ruin and prompted calls for Yayi to be tried for allegedly favouring the company, ICC Services. Yayi denies any wrongdoing.

Victims say government officials endorsed the company and signaled that its promises of lavish returns were legitimate by giving it special attention, including appearing with its management on television.

Besides that, Benin was the hardest-hit by devastating West African flooding last year, according to the United Nations.

In Benin alone, floods destroyed 55 000 homes, killed tens of thousands of livestock and affected some 680 000 people, the UN said. At least 46 people were reported dead.

Yayi, however, has also won plaudits for certain efforts aimed at helping the country's poor, including a vast microcredit programme.