Polling began in the tiny West African nation of Benin, with international observers assessing the atmosphere as "very calm and very relaxed". Voting was due to end nine hours later. By Pius Utomi Ekpei (AFP)
Cotonou (AFP) - Benin went to the polls Sunday to choose a new president from a record field of 33 candidates but with concerns about the distribution of voters' cards that already forced a two-week delay.
Polling began at 0600 GMT in the tiny West African nation, with international observers assessing the atmosphere as "very calm and very relaxed". 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 opened on time.
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.
The first results are expected within 72 hours of the vote.
- Main contenders -
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 but critics view him as an outsider "parachuted" in by former colonial power France.
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.
Two of Benin's leading businessmen, Patrice Talon, 57, and Sebastien Ajavon, 51, are also front-runners, pitching for the top job after previously bankrolling presidential bids.
Other favourites include economist Abdoulaye Bio Tchane and financier Pascal Irenee Koupaki, both 64, who were voting in the northern town of Djougou and Pomasse in the south.
- Key region -
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.
Key issues in the election include job creation, tackling corruption, improving health and education, and the economy in the country, a major cotton producer.
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.
- Voters' cards -
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 that 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 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."
By: Cecile de Comarmond and Benjamin Agon
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