Benin votes for new president to succeed Boni Yayi

Cotonou (AFP) - Polls closed and counting began in Benin on Sunday after voting to choose a new president from a record 33 candidates, with monitors reporting few problems despite concerns about election cards.

Ballot papers were being collated and tallied across the tiny West African nation, with overall results expected within 72 hours.

Mathieu Boni, an official from a civil society group which has deployed more than 3,000 election observers, said there was "no major incident".

President Thomas Boni Yayi is bowing out after serving a maximum two five-year terms, marking him out among some African leaders who have tried to change constitutions to ensure third terms.

"My impressions are good for the simple reason that, with my departure, our democracy goes one step further," Boni Yayi told reporters.

Key issues in the election include urgent job creation, tackling corruption, improving access to health and education, and the economy in the country, which is a major cotton producer.

Despite its problems, largely agricultural Benin, which is dwarfed by Nigeria to the east, has been seen as a relatively stable country in often turbulent West Africa.

Benin, an important centre of the voodoo religion that is now promoting itself as a major regional shipping hub, introduced multi-party democracy in 1990 after nearly two decades of military rule.

- Main contenders -

Front-runners in the election 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 but critics view him as an outsider "parachuted" in by France as part of Paris' continued involvement in its former colonies.

Zinsou, who in the 1980s was a speechwriter for France's socialist former prime minister Laurent Fabius, cast his vote shortly before midday in the Cocotiers area of Benin's commercial hub, Cotonou.

"I am not so presumptious to personally give a forecast," he told reporters. "It's up to the voters to choose with the freedom and calm of a great democracy."

Two of Benin's leading businessmen, Patrice Talon, 57, and Sebastien Ajavon, 51, are also among the favourites, pitching for the top job after previously bankrolling presidential bids.

Others include economist Abdoulaye Bio Tchane and financier Pascal Irenee Koupaki, both 64, who voted in the northern town of Djougou and Pomasse in the south.

With so many candidates, political analysts predict no decisive result on Sunday and believe whoever wins in the northern region will determine the overall result.

- Voters' cards -

Farmer Emile Sosa was one of the first to vote in Cocotiers, Cotonou, and said lack of opportunities for the country's young people was a major problem.

"I want the next president to encourage the youth to take to agriculture," said the 49-year-old father of four.

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, said both old and new cards would be allowed "to avoid any tense situations and allow all voters to take part in the ballot".

In Zou and Plateau, voting would be allowed with identity cards rather than voter cards, he added, promising that all election material was available in polling stations across the country.

Voter Franck Tokannou said after casting his ballot in Cotonou: "This morning has been difficult for those who are organising it all but it seems that it's going OK. Everything is in order."