Businessman Patrice Talon won Benin’s presidential election with just over 65 percent of the vote, the electoral commission announced Monday. His rival, current Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, conceded defeat a day earlier when provisional results were released. Winners and losers say the entire process seems to have gone remarkably smoothly.
In the months leading up to the election, the competition was fierce between Zinsou, who is the favorite of incumbent Boni Yayi, and Talon, a flashy businessman who made his money in cotton and who once fled to France to escape corruption charges.
Talon actually bankrolled the current president’s two election campaigns before their relationship soured when Talon was accused of participating in a coup attempt involving a plan to poison the president.
He was later pardoned by Boni Yayi after mediation by several foreign leaders but their friendship never recovered.
During his campaign, Talon used symbols of his personal success to underscore his platform of supporting business and flaunted his wealth, driving to debates in a Porsche, his eyes shaded by designer sunglasses.
Early on Zinsou was seen as a frontrunner and he actually won the first round. But Talon threw himself into campaigning and coalition-building between the two rounds and experts said it was no surprise that he won the run-off.
During the campaign, Talon repeatedly called out Zinsou, who was nicknamed “yovo” or white man, for his ties to France. The current prime minister is Franco-Beninois and has spent much of his career in France, even working as a speech-writer for former French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius.
Yet these personal attacks did not overshadow discussions about policy, which were still at the heart of the campaign.
“There was actually a lively debate between the first round and the run-off,” says west African political analyst Gilles Yabi. “It wasn’t a detailed discussion about policy but there were interesting interactions and, for the first time, there were two different visions of the reality of today and the future. It wasn’t just about the personality of the candidates”.
This climate of real discussion was able to exist because of the peacefulness of the process, added Yabi, who is the founder of the Wathi think tank.
“Even if there were some personal attacks, they were verbal attacks and there was no indication of violence throughout the campaign,” he said.
On Sunday, when provisional results showed Talon had a healthy lead, Zinsou conceded defeat peacefully. He told the media that he called Talon to congratulate him.
Princeton professor Leonard Wantchekon, who was a pro-democracy student activist in the 1970s and 1980s and fled Benin after 18 months in prison, told RFI he was overjoyed to see the democratic process run so smoothly.
“For me, is really personal”, he said. “I think this process should be praised. It proves that things can be done well, in an extremely orderly and peaceful way, in Africa”.
Wantchekon pointed to another democratic success before the election campaign started when Boni decided to relinquish power after serving his limit of two terms in office. This sets him apart from the leaders of several other African nations, including Burundi, Rwanda and Congo Republic, who have altered their constitutions in order to extend their rule.
Boni steps down after two terms
“There were rumours that Yayi Boni was planning to change the constitution, but it didn’t happen because of very strong opposition from civil society groups and unions”, he said. “There were also rumours that his predecessor wanted to do the same thing, but his ministers opposed it. This shows how deeply-rooted democracy and democratic principles are in Benin. I think the credit for this success has to go to the people of Benin”.
Now those same Beninois are eager to see if their new president will keep good on his campaign promises, one of which stands out in the political leadership in the region.
“Talon is proposing that presidents should be limited to just one term in office,” political analyst Yabi said. “He says that if presidents can run for a second term, they spend too much time campaigning and worrying about public opinion.”
He has also promised to ensure that recruitment at government administrative agencies are based on competence and not on political allegiances.
The people of Benin are waiting to see what the next five years under Talon will be like and indeed if he will stick to his promise of only serving as president for five years. But the smoothness of the democratic process thus far certainly is a good start.
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