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UPDATE 2-Benin wraps up voting in hotly contested presidential run-off

* Incumbent Boni Yayi stepping down after two terms

* Prime minister and businessman vying for top job

* No clear front-runner in tight race

(Adds polls closing, start of vote count)

By Allegresse Sasse

COTONOU, March 20 (Reuters) - Benin wrapped up voting 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.

However, he has had to overcome the perception that having
spent the bulk of his career abroad he is an outsider in his own
country.

"Elections are really something that bring us all together.
It's a day of peace and hope," he said after casting his ballot.

Zinsou faces Patrice Talon, a businessman and once a
powerful figure in the West African nation's cornerstone cotton
sector, who finished just over 3 percentage points behind the
prime minister in the first round.

Talon was a staunch supporter of Boni Yayi before falling
out of favour with the president, who later accused him of
involvement in a plot to poison him.

Mediation efforts led to a presidential pardon however, and
Talon returned from exile in France in October.

"I have the impression that our country's renaissance is
already under way. The renaissance will come, and I am going to
win," Talon said after voting on Sunday.

Early turnout for the polls was light as many voters were in
church for Palm Sunday services. And while more cast their
ballots later in the day, observers said they believed overall
participation levels were lower than in the first round when
turnout was around 64 percent.

Poll worker immediately began counting ballots after voting
ended in the late afternoon. Provisional results were expected
to be announced by the elections commission as early as Monday.

"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.

On Sunday, the principal donor-funded civil society
observation platform claimed that ballot box stuffing had been
reported in the Collines administrative district in the centre
of Benin as well as in Atacora in the north.

The election is nonetheless expected to reinforce the
democratic credentials of tiny Benin, which became the first
nation in West Africa to move from dictatorship and single-party
rule to multi-party democracy when it held elections in 1991.

(Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle and Raissa
Kasolowsky)

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