Benin opposition supporters protest exclusion from vote

Opposition protesters in Benin's biggest city Cotonou, where they chanted slogans denouncing President Patrice Talon (AFP Photo/Yanick Folly)
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Cotonou (AFP) - Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets in Benin's biggest city on Monday to accuse President Patrice Talon of seeking to exclude them from forthcoming legislative elections.

An estimated 20,000 protesters took part in the march in Cotonou, where crowds, including politicians, union leaders, women, students and traders, brandished placards reading "Repeal rogue laws" and "Save Beninese democracy in danger".

They also chanted slogans denouncing Talon, who has been accused of authoritarianism since he was elected in March 2016.

Several political opponents have been subjected to legal proceedings in recent months as part of a fight against corruption which critics have described as a witch-hunt.

The latest demonstration follows a controversial decision by the national electoral commission (CENA) preventing five opposition parties from standing at parliamentary elections due on April 28.

More than five million people are expected to vote for all 83 seats in the National Assembly.

CENA last week ruled that only two parties -- which both officially support the president -- had fulfilled the conditions required by the new electoral code adopted last year, tightening the rules governing political parties.

The decision sparked outrage in Benin, leading Talon to call a meeting of representatives from all parties where he proposed finding a solution in parliament to "break the deadlock".

But the main opposition parties boycotted the meeting, instead calling for mass protests which they have said reflect widespread frustration with the president.

Monday's march was organised by the Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) of former President Thomas Boni Yayi and businessman Sebastien Ajavon's Social Liberal Union (USL).

"The people are out in the streets because they want to tell the president that they are fed up," Donklam Abalo, a USL leader, told AFP.

Parliament needs to act to "let the people express themselves to freely choose their representatives", he added.

The parliament's deputy leader Eric Houndete, who was at the protest, vowed: "There will be no election without the opposition."

Victor Topanou, the former justice minister of ex-president Boni Yayi, said the CENA decision to ban the opposition from elections was the final straw.

"For three years, there has been a feeling of an almost constant violation of individual and collective freedoms," he said.