Electoral officials and observers at a polling station in Cotonou, Benin, May 17 2020. Picture: YANICK FOLLYy / AFP
Electoral officials and observers at a polling station in Cotonou, Benin, May 17 2020. Picture: YANICK FOLLYy / AFP

Parakou — Benin staged local elections minus top opposition parties on Sunday with authorities pushing ahead despite the coronavirus threat and calls for a delay.

The West African nation of 11-million has lifted a raft of restrictions aimed at halting the spread of the virus. Covid-19 has caused 339 confirmed infections and two deaths in the country.

The national election commission made face masks mandatory for voters and enforced social distancing measures at polling stations. “We have received a lot of hydro-alcohol gels and masks for all voters,” returning officer Mathieu Daki told AFP at N'dali in the north of the country.

In the economic capital, Cotonou, where most coronavirus deaths have occurred, election officials ensured voters were more than 1m apart.

However, not everyone appeared to have been reassured. In the city’s fifth district, election agent Dimitri Assani admitted voters were “few and far between”.

Donatien Sagbo Hounga wore a mask to enter the polling station, but said he was waiting “till there were no other voters in front of the election agents” to move forward to cast his vote. “It may seem excessive but it’s necessary,” Hounga said.

Campaigning has been limited to posters and media appearances as candidates were forced to call off rallies due to a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people.

Health risks

Critics warned the health risks were too high for a vote that opponents of President Patrice Talon insist should not be happening in the first place.

Talon sported a mask when he voted early in Cotonou’s Zongo-Ehuzu area.

In the city’s first district Arnold Migan voted early in the morning. “With the threat from Covid-19 it is best to vote quickly and go home before a lot of people arrive,” he said.

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

Talon, a former business magnate who came to power in 2016, has been accused of a crackdown that drove main 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 but turnout was only 25%.

Now leading opposition parties again find themselves barred from the vote for control of 77 councils across the country. The exclusion drew a legal challenge from Talon opponent Sebastien Ajavon, a business person 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.

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

Many among the electorate appeared set to heed the call to stay home given that the result looks certain to go in favour of those backing Talon. In Cotonou’s Cadjehoun area only about 30 people had voted by midday out of 400 registered there.

Final results from the election are expected within a week.