Beninese are voting for a new parliament but without a single opposition candidate, as rights groups warn of a crackdown in a country once seen as a model for democracy.
As polls opened at 7am (06:00 GMT) on Sunday, people in the small West African state voted to elect 83 members of parliament from two parties – both allied to President Patrice Talon.
“The wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful protests, have reached an alarming level,” Amnesty International said ahead of the polls.
Election watchdogs ruled last month that only the two parties allied to Talon met toughened conditions of admissibility under the new electoral laws. Their decision effectively barred the entire political opposition from fielding candidates.
“This follows the Electoral Commission’s decision to authorise only two political parties – both from the presidential camp – to stand in the elections and to exclude all opposition candidates’ lists,” said Amnesty researcher Francois Patuel.
“We call on the authorities to take all appropriate measures to ensure that the election is held in a climate that is free from violence and allow all people to express their views and stop the intimidation of journalists which has a chilling effect on press freedom,” he added.
In Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou, a stream of cars and trucks pass by, painted in the colours of the two parties, the Progressives and Republicans.
With a blanket ban on demonstrations, there seemed to be little reaction, even after two former presidents, Nicephorus Soglo and Thomas Boni Yayi, urged people to take to the streets to protest.
“Banning peaceful protests and detaining those who speak up against the exclusion of opposition parties from the legislative election will only fuel political turmoil,” Amnesty’s Patuel said.
Before 1991, Benin struggled under decades of authoritarian rule. The transition to democracy brought a flowering of political competition – five years ago, voters could choose from 20 parties for the 83 seats in parliament.
But this year, MPs from the ruling party pushed through a new electoral code.
Talon, elected in 2016, portrays himself as a reformer and modernist. He defended the electoral code, saying it would bring together scores of political parties into simpler blocs.
But critics say the rules were too tough and bureaucratic, and opposition parties failed to meet all the administrative requirements in time.
Polls close at 4pm local time (15:00 GMT), with little doubt that the new parliament will back the presidency in its entirety.