By Fiacre Vidjingninou (AFP) – Mar 5, 2011
COTONOU — The head of Benin's electoral commission on Saturday defended his agency after the country postponed this weekend's presidential vote a second time because preparations were far from complete.
The small West African nation postponed Sunday's election to March 13 late Friday after pressure mounted on the government to do so, including from the United Nations and African Union, which called for a delay.
Electoral commission head Joseph Gnonlonfoun said politics were to blame for a late start to preparations, with a dispute among parliament members over membership of the agency having delayed its formation.
A range of problems led to Friday's second postponement, with voting station agents not yet designated and trained, electoral cards still being distributed and allegations that more than a million people were left off the voter roll.
The original date for the election, when President Boni Yayi will be seeking a second term, was February 27 and a first postponement had put it at March 6.
"It's not our fault," Gnonlonfoun told AFP. "We were installed for two elections 35 days before and the law says that the (commission) must be installed 60 days before an election...
"I would say, in fact, that we are victims of that."
Legislative elections are also due in April.
Asked why his commission waited until Thursday to request another postponement, he said it had to wait until its coordinators throughout the country reported back on their findings.
"We could not take a decision without having solid reasons to do it," the electoral chief said. "When they returned, we immediately sounded the alarm."
While the opposition alleges that more than a million people were left off the voter roll, others say those claims are inflated and the actual figure is much lower.
A separate agency is in charge of putting together the electoral roll and distributing voter cards in the former French colony of some 9.2 million people. The head of that agency could not be reached for comment.
Concerns over the voter roll triggered a series of demonstrations in recent days calling for a postponement. Nearly two weeks ago, authorities used tear gas to break up a demonstration over the electoral roll.
The roll has set off a series of accusations, with the opposition raising questions over whether voters were excluded on purpose.
Yayi's supporters argue that their opponents discouraged people from registering to disrupt the electoral process.
Observers say technical problems likely contributed to a certain number of people being left off the list, with the country putting together an electronic voter roll for the first time.
Maurille Agbokou, head of the Adjinakou newspaper, said the electronic list, while flawed, represented major progress in a country where corruption has long been a problem.
However, he said the agencies in charge of organising elections have long suffered from political interference and problems will continue to occur if they are not resolved.
"The biggest problem is not technical," he said. "It's political."
Yayi was seen as a symbol of change when he took office in 2006, but has since been weighed down by corruption scandals.
His main opponent, Adrien Houngbedji, in his fifth campaign for president, is supported by many of the country's traditional political elites.
The other major candidate in the race is Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, a former president of the West African Development Bank.
A runoff vote is to be held two weeks after the first round if no one gains an absolute majority, a scenario many observers say is likely, particularly with a total of 14 candidates in the race.
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