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Benin votes in controversial elections despite Covid-19 threat

Benin President Patrice Talon casts his ballot at the Charles Guiyot Zongo public school on May 17, 2020, as voting got underway for the local elections.
Benin President Patrice Talon casts his ballot at the Charles Guiyot Zongo public school on May 17, 2020, as voting got underway for the local elections. © Yanick Folly, AFP

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

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The West African nation of 11 million this week 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. 

Turnout nonetheless appeared to have suffered, observers noted after the polls had closed, and AFP saw that in opposition strongholds it did not exceed 10 percent.

Opposition leader Joseph Tamegnon charged in declaration that President "Patrice Talon believes he has the Republic under his thumb."

Campaigning was limited to posters and media appearances as candidates were forced to call off rallies due to a ban on gatherings of over 50 people. 

For the voting, the autonomous national election commission (CENA) 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 a metre apart.

However, not everyone appeared to have been reassured.

In the city's 5th 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.

'Vote quickly and go home' 

Critics warned the health risks were too high for a vote that Talon's opponents insisted 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's 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 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 but turnout was only 25 percent.  

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 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.

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

Final results are expected within a week.

(AFP)

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