Benin has legislative elections on 31 March (originally scheduled for the 25th, but postponed). Benin is a presidential system (“pure” not “semi”) and is one of the few such systems to have nonconcurrent elections. It has had regular elections now for about fifteen years, making it one of the real success stories of Africa’s recent democratic wave. The president, Yayi Boni, who was elected a year ago, recently was ambushed. He was unhurt.
I don’t know much about Benin politics, and coverage is sparse (few news items and, in a Google blog search, only F&V!). So, I am just going to reiterate some things I said about the country’s political institutions back at the time of the last presidential election in March, 2006. In doing so, I seek to emphasize why this Saturday’s legislative election–the first since the end of the ten-year presidency of Mathieu KÃ©rÃ©kou–is so important to the future direction of this African democracy.
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 then-president KÃ©rÃ©kou (who was barred from running again in 2006) won 55.8% of the votes and 53 of the 82 seats (around 65%).3 Last year, Jonathan Edelstein and I had some discussion about the likelihood that KÃ©rÃ©kou would retain control of the congressional majority even after the election of the new president. I do not know whether the former president managed to do so, nor whether he is likely to retain (or regain) such effective control in this election. The question of whether the president or his opposition controls the legislature is even more important in most other (pure) presidential systems, given the weakness of presidential lawmaking powers, as discussed above.
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, and that is probably a good thing for democratic stability. It has now been a full year since Yayi Boni’s election, and unfortunately I have no idea how the branches have worked together (or not).
Backgrounders: VOA, Freedom House, BBC.
1. Lately, I have been thinking it is particularly prone to crisis in developed countries.
2. Notwithstanding that I consider a certain 2006 nonconcurrent election to have been a splendid idea!!
3. The electoral system is closed-list PR, 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.