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Benin rivals face off in hotly contested presidential run-off

COTONOU, March 20 (Reuters) - Voters in Benin cast ballots
on Sunday in a run-off election that pitted outgoing President
Thomas Boni Yayi's hand-picked successor against his former ally
turned political rival in a highly competitive race.

By relinquishing power after serving two terms in office,
Boni Yayi stands in contrast to leaders in other African
nations, including Burundi, Rwanda and Congo Republic, who have
altered their constitutions in order to extend their rule.

Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, a former economist and
investment banker backed by both Boni Yayi and the main
opposition Democratic Renewal Party, won a March 6 first round
of voting with 28.4 percent of ballots.

He faces Patrice Talon, a businessman and powerful figure in
the West African nation's cornerstone cotton sector, who
garnered 24.8 percent of first-round votes.

Early turnout for the polls was light as many voters were in
church for Palm Sunday services. Security forces were deployed
near polling stations and few problems were reported early on.

"I am happy that everything is calm in Benin. I'm confident
everything will be fine. Democracy is working," said Paul
Abjibi, shortly after voting in Abomey-Calavi, a town just
outside the commercial capital Cotonou.

There was no clear front-runner in the poll, and campaigning
centred largely on how to best revive the economy, which is
flagging in part due to falling oil prices that have hit its
neighbour and largest trading partner Nigeria.

Civil society groups denounced both candidates' campaigns on
Friday for allegedly distributing cash in an attempt to buy
votes.

The election is nonetheless expected to reinforce Benin's
credentials as a model of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. It
became the first nation in the region to move from dictatorship
and single-party rule to multi-party democracy when it held
elections in 1991.

(Reporting by Allegresse Sasse; writing by Joe Bavier; Editing
by Elaine Hardcastle)

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