Polls open for twice-delayed election
After a last-minute rush to get all voters registered, Benin opened polling stations Sunday for its presidential election. President Boni Yayi, who came into office in 2006, is seeking a second term but is currently embroiled in a financial scandal.
AFP - Benin holds presidential polls Sunday after chaotic preparations led to two earlier postponements, and some claim scores of people remain off the voter list despite a last-minute rush to register them.
President Boni Yayi, who came into office in 2006 pledging to crack down on corruption but now finds himself under fire over an alleged Ponzi scheme that left thousands without their savings, will be seeking a second term.
His main challenger, Adrien Houngbedji, backed by many of the traditional political elites in the small West African nation, has pushed for a third postponement of the election, arguing that voter registration should continue.
This time however, the United Nations and African Union has not joined calls for a delay, as they did ahead of the second postponement.
The head of West African bloc ECOWAS said Saturday the country was "less tense" than the week before.
"I am very, very pleased with what I have seen so far," ECOWAS chief James Victor Gbeho said.
Not everyone shared his opinion, however.
The country of some 9.2 million people will use an electronic voter register for the first time, but the process of compiling it led to opposition claims that more than a million people had been left off.
Others said that number was exaggerated and the figure was much lower.
A mop-up voter registration was originally to be held last Wednesday and Thursday, but was extended through to Saturday when crowds mobbed sign-up centres and equipment broke down.
Registration centres remained open deep into the night to accommodate the crowds who showed up. Those who had still been unable to sign up protested when soldiers arrived on Saturday to remove the equipment.
"They must be able to vote like all Benin citizens, and that is not the case today," the head of a district of the economic capital Cotonou, Charles Houessin, said after the registration period closed Saturday.
"It's a serious problem."
But while some warned that the chaotic preparations were a recipe for riots and disorder for Sunday's vote, a spokesman for the electoral commission said the vast majority of voters were signed up and he foresaw no major problems.
"We are ready," said Honorat Adjovi. "We cannot register everyone, but I can tell you that the maximum has been done."
The electoral list was not the only problem in the run up to the vote.
When the African Union and UN joined calls for a second postponement more than a week ago, they pointed out that electoral cards were still being distributed and voting station agents had not been designated and trained.
Yayi ruled out a third postponement in his final pre-election rally on Friday.
He faces a strong challenge from Houngbedji, 69, who has run in every presidential election since the start of multiparty democracy in 1990.
The 58-year-old president, an economist who worked at the Central Bank of West African States, has had anything but a smooth ride during his first five-year term.
He has been hit by a series of corruption scandals, most prominently involving an alleged Ponzi scheme by a firm he was accused of assisting. Yayi denies any wrongdoing.
Besides that, Benin was the hardest-hit by devastating West African flooding last year, according to the United Nations.
In Benin alone, floods destroyed 55,000 homes, killed tens of thousands of livestock and affected some 680,000 people, the UN said. At least 46 people were reported dead.
But despite the problems with election organisation as well as persistent corruption, Benin politics is seen as having advanced significantly over the last two decades.
The 2006 election won by Yayi was generally viewed as free and fair by international observers.
Polls were to open at 7:00 am (0600 GMT) and close at 4:00 pm (1500 GMT). Final results were not expected until several days later.
A third major candidate, Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, could help force a runoff, which would be held two weeks later.