Sunday, March 20, 2016

Benin Rivals Face Off in Hotly Contested Presidential Run-off

Supporters of presidential candidate Patrice Talon campaign ahead of the second round of Benin's presidential election on Sunday in Cotonou, Benin, March 18, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Placide Tossou

Voters in Benin cast ballots on Sunday in a run-off election that pitted outgoing President Thomas Boni Yayi's hand-picked successor against his former ally turned political rival in a highly competitive race.

By relinquishing power after serving two terms in office, Boni Yayi stands in contrast to leaders in other African nations, including Burundi, Rwanda and Congo Republic, who have altered their constitutions in order to extend their rule.

Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, a former economist and investment banker backed by both Boni Yayi and the main opposition Democratic Renewal Party, won a March 6 first round of voting with 28.4 percent of ballots.

He faces Patrice Talon, a businessman and powerful figure in the West African nation's cornerstone cotton sector, who garnered 24.8 percent of first-round votes.

Early turnout for the polls was light as many voters were in church for Palm Sunday services. Security forces were deployed near polling stations and few problems were reported early on.

"I am happy that everything is calm in Benin. I'm confident everything will be fine. Democracy is working," said Paul Abjibi, shortly after voting in Abomey-Calavi, a town just outside the commercial capital Cotonou.

There was no clear front-runner in the poll, and campaigning centered largely on how to best revive the economy, which is flagging in part due to falling oil prices that have hit its neighbor and largest trading partner Nigeria.

Civil society groups denounced both candidates' campaigns on Friday for allegedly distributing cash in an attempt to buy votes.

The election is nonetheless expected to reinforce Benin's credentials as a model of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. It became the first nation in the region to move from dictatorship and single-party rule to multi-party democracy when it held elections in 1991.

(Reporting by Allegresse Sasse; writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

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