Rejecting appeal, government sets poll for 19 March

Benin’s government late Friday rejected an appeal for more time to organise the second round in the country’s key presidential election and ruled instead that voting take place Sunday 19 March.

The country’s National Electoral Commission (CENA) said earlier on Friday that as the results of the first 5 March round had been announced only this week, there was insufficient time left to organise a final round by Sunday.

Under Benin’s constitution, if a candidate fails to win an outright majority of more than 50 percent in the first round, a final run-off between the two leading contenders must be held two weeks later. CENA chairman Sylvain Nouwatin had called for a postponement of four days until Wednesday 22 March in order to give the candidates time to campaign.

But in a statement overnight incumbent President Mathieu Kerekou and his team ruled that the vote go ahead on Sunday.

Nouwatin said in a statement on Saturday that the CENA would do its utmost to organise the poll within 24 hours and called on the country’s four million eligible voters to turn out to choose a new president.

“We’ve been backed up against the wall, which means we are obliged to go ahead,” he said. “We will do our best in order that all goes off as best possible.”

Nouwatin’s appeal had been backed by the Constitutional Court, which also called on the government to put off the election to next week.

The final round will pit political newcomer and former banker Boni Yayi against veteran politician and lawyer Adrien Houngbedji. Official results from the first round showed Yayi led the field of 26 contenders with 35.64 percent of the vote while Houngbedji garnered 24.12 percent.

Of the 24 losers, 11 have urged their supporters to back Yayi, including Bruno Amoussou who came in third place with 16.23 percent, and Lehady Soglo who was fourth with 8.41 percent.

The election is set to end almost three decades in office for Kerekou, and the election has been clouded by fears he may refuse to step down. The former military ruler introduced multi-party politics in 1991 and since has held two successive mandates which, along with his age, means that under the constitution he cannot run for office.

Yayi, a 54-year-old who last month resigned as chairman of the Togo-based West African Development Bank to run in the election, is an independent backed by a coalition of groups and parties. Houngbedji, the 64-year-old leader of the Democratic Renewal Party, is a veteran politician who twice served as speaker of parliament.