Benin has been considered a model of democracy in troubled West Africa since 1990, when multi-party democracy was ushered in.
The people of Benin are voting Sunday to choose a new president from a crowded field of 33 candidates, but with concerns lingering about the distribution of voters’ cards that already forced a two-week delay.
Polling began at 0600 GMT in the tiny West African nation—long considered a democratic success story in the troubled region. Voting was due to end nine hours later.
Mathieu Boni, an official from a civil society group which has deployed more than 3,000 election observers, said “more than half” of the nearly 8,000 polling stations across the country opened on time.
Incumbent President Thomas Boni Yayi is bowing out after serving a maximum two five-year terms. The first results are expected within 72 hours of the vote.
Prominent candidates include Lionel Zinsou, the Franco-Beninese financier who stepped down as head of France’s biggest investment bank to become prime minister last year.
The 61-year-old is standing for the ruling Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) party and is widely viewed as Boni Yayi’s chosen successor.
He already has the support of two opposition parties and on Friday dismissed critics who see him as an outsider “parachuted” in by former colonial power France.
“People say I’m white, an interloper, a foreigner, a Frenchman, a colonialist,” Zinsou told news agency AFP. “But there’s perhaps 10% of people who act like that.
“For 90% of people, obviously I’m different but that creates a certain interest.”
Zinsou, who in the 1980s was a speechwriter for France’s socialist former prime minister Laurent Fabius, said he had also encountered people who were proud of his success abroad.
Two of Benin’s leading businessmen, Patrice Talon, 57, nicknamed “The King of Cotton”, and “The Chicken King” Sebastien Ajavon, are also seen as front-runners, pitching for the top job after previously bankrolling presidential bids from the sidelines.
Other favourites include economist Abdoulaye Bio Tchane and financier Pascal Irenee Koupaki, both 64.
But with so many candidates, political analysts predict no decisive result and believe whoever wins in the northern region will determine the overall result.
Key issues in the election include job creation, tackling corruption, improving health and education, and the economy in the country, a major cotton producer.
In Benin’s business capital Cotonou, farmer Emile Sosa was one of the first to vote in the city’s Cocotiers district.
“I want the next president to encourage the youth to take to agriculture,” the 49-year-old father of four said, lamenting that the young were increasingly taking to driving motorcycle taxis due to a lack of opportunities.
The first round of voting had been due to take place on February 28 but was rescheduled because of delays in the production and distribution of the 4.7 million voters’ cards.
On Saturday evening, distribution of new voters’ cards had not started in two central states (Zou and Plateau) and had not been completed in several of the 10 others that make up the country.
The head of the independent electoral commission, Emmanuel Tiando, told reporters both old and new cards would be allowed on Sunday “to avoid any tense situations and allow all voters to take part in the ballot”.
In Zou and Plateau, voting would be allowed to take place with identity cards rather than voter cards, he added, promising that all election material was available in polling stations across the country.
Delays aside, Benin has been considered a model of democracy in troubled West Africa since 1990, when a celebrated National Conference ended 19 years of military rule and established multi-party democracy.
FOLLOW NEW AFRICA BUSINESS NEWS ON FACEBOOK @ New Africa Business News.com