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Benin votes for president at last

COTONOU, Mar 13 – Benin voted in presidential polls Sunday after chaotic preparations led to two earlier postponements, and some claimed scores remained off the voter list despite a last-minute rush to register them.

Organisation problems persisted on the morning of the vote, with a number of polling stations yet to open in the economic capital Cotonou and elsewhere an hour after the 0600 GMT start time due to late arrival of material and workers.

Witnesses reported some stations had opened in other parts of the country, including in the capital Porto Novo.

"This is pretty serious," said Roger Donon, 65, who had been waiting for nearly an hour at a voting station in Cotonou where materials had not yet arrived. "They haven\’t said what time (voting would start)."

At another polling place, one man yelled out "sabotage!" as he waited for voting to start.

President Boni Yayi, who came into office in 2006 pledging to crack down on corruption but now finds himself under fire over an alleged Ponzi scheme that left thousands without their savings, is seeking a second term.

His main challenger, Adrien Houngbedji, backed by many of the traditional political elites in the small west African nation, had pushed for a third postponement of the election, arguing that voter registration should continue.

This time, however, the United Nations and African Union did not join calls for a delay, as they did ahead of the second postponement.

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The head of west African bloc ECOWAS said Saturday the country was "less tense" than the week before.

"I am very, very pleased with what I have seen so far," ECOWAS chief James Victor Gbeho said.

Not everyone shared his opinion, however.

The country of some 9.2 million people was using an electronic voter register for the first time, but the process of compiling it led to opposition claims that more than a million people had been left off.

Others said that number was exaggerated and the figure was much lower.

A mop-up voter registration was originally to be held last Wednesday and Thursday, but was extended through to Saturday when crowds mobbed sign-up centres and equipment broke down.

Registration centres remained open deep into the night to accommodate the crowds who showed up. Those who had still been unable to sign up protested when soldiers arrived on Saturday to remove the equipment.

But while some warned that the chaotic preparations were a recipe for riots and disorder for Sunday\’s vote, a spokesman for the electoral commission said the vast majority of voters were signed up and he foresaw no major problems.

"We are ready," Honorat Adjovi said Saturday. "We cannot register everyone, but I can tell you that the maximum has been done."

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The electoral list was not the only problem in the run-up to the vote.

When the African Union and UN joined calls for a second postponement more than a week ago, they pointed out that electoral cards were still being distributed and voting station agents had not been designated and trained.

Yayi, 58, ruled out a third postponement at his final pre-election rally on Friday.

He faces a strong challenge from Houngbedji, 69, who has run in every presidential election since the start of multiparty democracy in 1990.

A third major candidate, Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, could help force a run-off, which would be held two weeks later.

Polls were to close at 4:00 pm (1500 GMT) and final results were not expected for several days.


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