Benin has a presidential election today. Benin is a former French colony, previously known as Dahomey, on what was once called the “Slave Coast” of west Africa. The country has been rated as “free” by Freedom House continuously since their 1991-92 survey.
President Mathieu Kerekou is ineligible to run again, due to both a two-term limit and an age limit. He has been president for all but five years since initially taking power in a coup in 1972, after which he declared Marxism-Leninism the official ideology before later leading the country into electoral politics (see BBC’s country profile). The five years when he was out of power represented the period after the first competitive election (1991-96): the presidency of his long-time rival, Nicephore Soglo, who is also banned due to the age limit. As Fontaine notes at Yebo Gogo, a struggling economy will be a challenge to whoever is elected.
While Benin has been continuously democratic for around sixteen years now–an impressive record for such a poor country–the constitutional bans on the “old men” running yet again means that this is the country’s first election that has been wide open. There are twenty six candidates, of whom three are considered serious contenders: Adrien Houngbedji (Democratic Renewal Party), Bruno Amoussou (Social Democrat), and Yayi Boni (a nonparty evangelical Christian). Soglo’s son, Lehady, is also in the running, under the Benin Renaissance banner.
If no candidate obtains a majority today, there will be a runoff in about two weeks.
Benin’s constitution establishes a presidential system. Unlike many African democracies–especially many former French colonies–Benin’s constitution does not establish a premier as the head of government. That makes Benin more akin to the USA or typical Latin American presidential systems (as well as Liberia and a few former British African colonies), in that the president is head of government as well as head of state.
Aside from not having to share executive powers with an assembly agent, the president of Benin is quite weak constitutionally–one of the weakest in the world, actually. Consider his veto power. He may return a bill to the assembly, which must debate it again, but then:
Le vote pour cette seconde dÃ©libÃ©ration est acquis Ã la majoritÃ© absolue des membres composant l’AssemblÃ©e Nationale. Si aprÃ¨s ce dernier vote, le PrÃ©sident de la RÃ©publique refuse de promulguer la loi, la Cour Constitutionnelle, saisie par le prÃ©sident de l’AssemblÃ©e Nationale, dÃ©clare la loi exÃ©cutoire si elle est conforme Ã la Constitution [Art. 57].
In other words, his veto cannot be sustained against the wishes of a majority of all members of the assembly, and the constitution has safeguards against the possibility that the president might still refuse to carry out his administrative duty to promulgate a law (provided it is constitutional) that was passed over his veto.
The executive has some additional lawmaking power, through constitutional delimitation of policy areas that are in the domain of ordinance rather than loi, but this list of areas in domaine de la loi (Art. 98) is quite extensive (more so than in the French constitution, for example, where the assembly has a premier whom it may oust via a no confidence vote, unlike in Benin). There is even a striking limitation on the potential tendency of a pro-presidential majority to want to delegate its lawmaking powers to the executive (which is a common practice in many Latin American presidential systems, for example): If a policy area is in the domaine de la loi, an act of delegation may be passed, but only by a two-thirds majority (Art. 102).
Benin’s record of democracy, while hardly unblemished, is quite good and thus defies the claims of many political scientists (not me among them) that presidential systems are inherently prone to crisis in less developed countries.1 The constitutional powers were allocated as if the designers were well aware of this political-science literature, seeking to delimit and constrain presidential authority.
They apparently were not aware, however, of the skepticism among political scientists of presidential systems with nonconcurrent legislative elections (with me very much in the forefront on this point2). The assembly was last elected in 2003, and an alliance of parties favoring Kerekou won 55.8% of the votes and 53 of the 82 seats (around 65%).3 If the president elected today (or in the subsequent runoff) is not from this alliance, governance could be very difficult, at least until the renewal of the legislature next March. With such a weak veto, a president who faced majority opposition would be the executive in only the most literal sense: Executing laws that he opposed, and seeing his own legislative initiatives blocked. Given that the two big legislative alliances hide considerable internal fragmentation,4 such a clearly opposed executive-legislative division would seem unlikely, fortunately.
UPDATE: See The Head Heeb’s day-after report, which supports the notion raised in my original post that the extremely weak powers of the presidency in Benin soon may become very apparent–if, that is, outgoing president Kerekou retains control of the legislative alliance that has supported his presidency.
Of course, for him to retain this control would require that the parties that were in alliance with Kerekou, as well as his own, resist being “bought” by the new president. In systems with regionally or ethnically based parties and constitutionally strong presidencies, the president almost always brings legislators over to his side by offering patronage or pork-barrel payoffs.
However, the weakness of the presidency under Benin’s constitution probably gives an ex-president (i.e. Kerekou, soon) greater prospects for continuing influence over the legislators that supported him during his presidency. Still, even a weak president has patronage to offer by virtue of his heading the executive branch. How the Kerekou allies respond will be crucial to how this unusual case of constitutionally weak presidentialism functions under divided government.
1. Lately, I have been thinking it is particularly prone to crisis in developed countries.
2. Notwithstanding that in 2006 I think nonconcurrent elections are a splendid idea!!
3. It is a list (closed, I believe) PR system, but based on rather small districts. With 82 seats and 24 districts, the average magnitude is just over 3. In fact, no district elects more than five, and most elect either three or five members.
4. According to Adam Carr, the 53 members of the Mouvance PrÃ©sidentielle who were elected in 2003 included 31 from the Union pour le BÃ©nin du Futur, as well as members from four other parties. The opposition alliance consists of three parties with 15, 11, and 3 seats each. I do not recognize any of the labels Carr gives for the 2003 results among the labels BBC gives for the leading presidential candidates, except for Benin Renaissance (Soglo’s party). This suggests that party labels are fluid and connote more regional and personal attachments (or ethnicity) than real “parties” per se. That makes a rigid government-opposition divide all the more unlikely, as blocs of legislators can probably be brought into a new “presidential movement” when whoever wins offers patronage and other payoffs. Usually such presidential systems–i.e. those without relatively programmatic parties–have very strong proactive or even unilateral presidencies to overcome potential deadlocks within a legislature with minimal interest in national policy; Benin is thus unusual, and I dare say a theoretically significant case of presidentialism!