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Benin votes on Sunday in the deciding second round of its presidential election, with Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou taking on businessman Patrice Talon for the tiny west African country’s top job.
Polls were due to open at 0600 GMT in the race to succeed outgoing President Thomas Boni Yayi, who is stepping down after two full five-year terms.
Zinsou, who quit his job as head of one of Europe’s biggest investment banks when he was nominated prime minister last year, on the face of it is the leading contender.
The 61-year-old candidate for Boni Yayi’s Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) has the support of the majority of lawmakers in parliament via the backing of two main opposition groupings.
He won 27.1 percent of the vote in the first round on March 6, with Talon, a 57-year-old entrepreneur who made his money in cotton and running Cotonou’s port, second on 23.5 percent.
But since then, 24 of the 32 other candidates who stood in the first round have come out in support of Talon, including third-placed Sebastien Ajavon, who won 22 percent of votes.
The tight margins give Zinsou a potential uphill battle against Talon, who has billed himself as the authentic Beninese candidate and repeatedly attacked his opponent’s dual French nationality.
Zinsou, who attended an elite French university and was a speechwriter for the former prime minister Laurent Fabius, has been called a “yovo” or “the white man” during the campaign.
On Thursday, the two candidates took part in Benin’s first ever presidential debate in which Zinsou ran through his key manifesto pledges to cut poverty, and improve power supplies and healthcare.
But Talon harped on the record of Boni Yayi, whom he said had created “a banana republic” that had become “the laughing stock of the world”, as well as questioning Zinsou’s knowledge of Benin.
Critics have claimed the prime minister is former colonial power France’s preferred choice.
Talon bankrolled Boni Yayi’s successful 2006 and 2011 presidential campaigns but fled to exile in France after being accused of masterminding an alleged plot to poison the president in 2012.
He only returned last October after receiving a presidential pardon.
Zinsou, whose supporters point to his distinguished record in business and top-level contacts, acted like “a governor in a land of savages”, said Talon, in a string of personal attacks.
Some 4.7 million of Benin’s 10.6 million people are registered to vote Sunday.
Tackling youth unemployment, corruption and improving health and education will be major issues for whoever is voted in.
Diversifying an economy that largely relies on agriculture, trade and exports with its neighbour to the east, Nigeria, will also be high on the agenda.
Counting of ballots is expected to begin after polling stations close at 1500 GMT, with results due within 72 hours.