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Benin holds presidential vote after postponements

By ANNE LOOK and VIRGILE AHISSOU
The Associated Press
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 10:01 AM

PORTO NOVO, Benin -- Benin opened polls Sunday for a twice-delayed presidential election after a last-minute scramble to register hundreds of thousands of eligible voters left off voter rolls.

Polling stations nationwide opened late, particularly special voting centers created for people registered during the last week.

"We were finally able to vote," said Paulin Doussou, a voter in the capital, Porto Novo, who cast his vote after a two-hour delay. "I'm disappointed the special polling stations were the ones with the longest delays. It seems they are still making voter lists and sending them to polling stations right now."

The electoral commission reopened voter registration Wednesday and extended it through Saturday in some areas in the hopes of registering 300,000 people it identified as having unsuccessfully tried to register before.

Initially set for Feb. 27, the election was pushed back to March 6 and then delayed another week at the request of the electoral commission, which pointed to unfinished preparations including unprinted materials and undelivered voter cards.

Nine of Benin's 14 presidential candidates, including the incumbent's two key rivals, called Thursday for a third postponement, citing incomplete preparations and approximately one million people the opposition said were left off the voter lists.

But President Thomas Boni Yayi, first elected in 2006 and currently seeking a second term, insisted elections go forward as planned.

"There were certainly errors," Yayi said as he cast his ballot in the commercial capital, Cotonou. "I ask forgiveness from those who were left off the voter list, and I would like to thank the nation for the experience it has given me over the last five years."

Benin is viewed as a rare example of democracy in a region of West Africa better known for coups.

Yayi's main challenger is longtime opposition leader, Adrien Houngbedji, 69, who has run in every presidential election since the country moved to multiparty democracy in 1990. This will be his fifth, and final, race as the constitution limits a candidate's age to 70.

Instead of holding a final campaign rally, Houngbedji issued a declaration Friday condemning the government for not delaying the election.

"As I speak, hundreds of thousands of our compatriots are still in line to try to register to vote," he said. "Each vote that you cast for me will constitute a sanction to this regime that is incapable of respecting our constitution."

In a 2006 presidential run-off recognized as free and fair, Yayi, 59, defeated Houngbedji with a landslide 75 percent of votes.

Yayi's popularity has been hurt, however, by a Ponzi scheme scandal last year that touched numerous members of his administration and in which more than 100,000 people in the nation of nearly 9 million lost their savings.

The scandal, along with a recent economic slump, have prompted many Yayi supporters to defect to the camps of Houngbedji and first-time candidate Abdoulaye Bio-Tchane, who is expected to play a kingmaker role in a likely run-off that will be held two weeks after the vote if no candidate wins a clear majority.

The former IMF official recently stepped down as president of the West African Development Bank, where he had succeeded Yayi.

Once the seat of a powerful medieval African kingdom, the former French colony underwent a series of military coups between 1960 and 1972 that ushered in three decades of Marxist rule under putschist-turned-president Mathieu Kerekou.

Heavy flooding - the country's worse since 1963 - hit two-thirds of the country last October, affecting nearly 700,000 people, killing tens of thousands of livestock and sparking a cholera outbreak.

Though one of the continent's top cotton producers, Benin remains underdeveloped and its people extremely poor. Its shores used to be called the Slave Coast for its use as a base of exportation for captives shipped to the Americas.

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Look contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.

© 2011 The Associated Press