Benin holds local poll despite COVID-19 threat

Critics say the health risks are too high for a vote that opponents of President Patrice Talon insist should not be happening in the first place.
A woman waits to vote the Agla East State primary school in Cotonou on April 28, 2019, as the nation goes to the polls. – The people of Benin voted on April 28, 2019 for a new parliament but without a single opposition candidate to choose from, as rights groups warn of a crackdown in a country once seen as a model for democracy. As poles opened, voters in the small West African state were given the choice to select their 83 members of parliament from two parties both allied to President Patrice Talon. (Photo by Yanick Folly / AFP)

Benin is set to hold local elections without key opposition parties on Sunday, as the authorities forge ahead with the poll despite the ravaging coronavirus pandemic.

The West African nation of 11 million on Monday rolled back a set of restrictions aimed at halting the spread of the virus. COVID-19 has caused 339 confirmed infections and two deaths in the country.

Voters will have to follow rules making face masks mandatory and officials insist social distancing measures will be enforced at polling stations. 

Campaigning has been limited to posters and media appearances as candidates were forced to scrap rallies due to a ban on gatherings of over 50 people, according to AFP.

But critics say the health risks are too high for a vote that opponents of President Patrice Talon insist should not be happening in the first place.

“It is a forced march. We could have postponed the poll to do things better,” said one candidate in largest city Cotonou on condition of anonymity.

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 Benin, traditionally seen as one of the region’s most stable democracies, has been mired in a political crisis since a disputed parliamentary poll last April sparked mass protest.

Talon, a former business magnate who came to power in 2016, has been accused of carrying out a crackdown that has driven key rivals into exile.

Parties allied to the president won all the seats at the polls last year after opposition groups were effectively banned from standing. 

Now leading opposition parties again find themselves barred from Saturday’s vote for control of 77 councils across the country.

The exclusion drew a legal challenge from top Talon foe Sebastien Ajavon, a businessman living in exile after he was sentenced to prison on drug charges in Benin.

The regional African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled the vote should be suspended as it was not inclusive.

But Benin disregarded the ruling and severed some ties with the court in protest at the decision.

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Opponents have called on voters to boycott the poll over the political situation and the risks from coronavirus.

Many among the electorate appear set to heed the call to stay home given the result is certain to go in favour of those backing Talon. 

“We know that the parties in power will score a clean sweep like the last parliamentary election,” student Firmin Armand told AFP.

“There is no point in going to risk your health for an election with little at stake.”

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