- Counting is underway in Benin today after a calm though at times chaotic presidential poll seen as critical to the future of the nation. Yesterday's polling had been problematic, with many stations having to stay open till late night. Even outgoing President Mathieu Kérékou criticised a falsification of the voters' register and indicated that the whole poll could be found fraudulent.
Turnout was high and there were few reported problems in the Sunday election, but in some regions voters queued well into the night due to delays in getting ballots, ink and boxes to the 17,849 polling stations across the country. "I am pleased by the massive turnout," said the head of Benin's Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA), Sylvain Nouwatin. "Provisional results will be announced in all transparency."
Early figures showed banker Yayi Boni, a newcomer to the political scene, and veteran politician and former cabinet minister Adrien Houngbedji leading the field of the 26 candidates bidding to step into the shoes of incumbent President Mathieu Kérékou. Unless one of the candidates is declared outright winner with more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will be held for this fourth multi-candidate presidential election since 1990.
President Kérékou, who is barred from standing by a constitutional age limit of 70, has dominated Beninese political life for three decades, first as Marxist military ruler and from 1990 as the motor behind the restoration of multiparty politics. But concerns about whether he will finally relinquish his hold are clouding the election.
On casting his vote on Sunday, President Kérékou warned against the fraud he claimed to have observed, deploring the loss of a million voting papers and the record number of 4,021,626 eligible voters, a figure that analysts and politicians alike say is far too high in this country of some seven million people. CENA had established this number, despite protests by the Cotonou government.
"The elections, which we had hoped would be transparent, will not be. You know this. The candidates know this yet they say nothing, and those running the election are not saying anything either," the outgoing President said. But he insisted this would not be tolerated. "Those responsible for it will pay dearly. If some candidates are not patriotic, they should take their names off the ballot. If they think they are going to be president, they are fooling themselves."
President Kérékou announced that he was already preparing measures to react to a possible fraudulent vote. "We will not choose a president in the darkness in Benin," Mr Kérékou said yesterday evening. "We will have total transparency. If needed we will do as already done in the United States, we will take three to four months to check the votes."
His statement has triggered mixed reactions. While some observers lauded President Kérékou for underlining Benin's commitment to the democratic process, others expressed fears that in a case of rigging, the outgoing President could decide to hold on to power. "This is a threat to democracy," noted Reckya Madougou of a rights group called ELAN that lobbied against a bid to change the constitution in 2004.
Voters in Benin, which is proud of its well-established democracy, turned out early on Sunday to cast their ballots. But while booths opened on schedule in the north, there were long delays and late-night voting in parts of southern Benin, mainly in the town of Ouidah and around the main city Cotonou with voting papers, official stamps and even voting registers missing. CENA blames the slips on gross under-financing from the Kérékou government.
Voters nevertheless wanted to use their polling right. "We have been queuing for six hours and have not had anything to eat," said voter Charles Soumanou in the suburb of Atrokpokodji outside Cotonou. One of the two women running for head of state, Marie-Elise Gbedo, said voting in her constituency began at 5 PM.
Security forces were on standby throughout the day and were called in for a few cases of fraud in Cotonou and arrests in Godome and Mono. But the head of a 158-member international observer mission, Patrick Houessou, said after receiving reports from 820 polling stations, that "voters were calm and intelligent." No major incidents were reported.
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