COTONOU, Benin: Benin soldiers look on as supporters wave to incumbent Benin President Patrice Talon on his arrival to vote at the Zongo Ehuzu polling station in Cotonou yesterday.—AFP

COTONOU, Benin: Benin President Patrice Talon looked set to win re-election on Sunday in a tense ballot, with critics accusing him of rigging the race in his favor by sidelining opposition leaders. A cotton tycoon first elected to lead the West African nation in 2016, Talon faces two little-known rivals, Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoue in Sunday's vote.

Benin was once praised as a vibrant democracy in an often troubled region, but most opposition leaders are in exile, were disqualified by electoral reforms or have been targeted for investigation by a special court. Tensions rose ahead of the vote, with protests breaking out in several cities in opposition strongholds.

In central and northern Benin, protesters blocked hundreds of cars and trucks travelling between the coast and the north. Sitting between Africa's powerhouse Nigeria and neighboring Togo, Benin has seen some economic successes under Talon, who has played up his record while campaigning. He has promised a "KO" first-round win.

"I believe that today will be a great one. In the end, we will see that the intimidation, the fears have not mattered much," Talon said after voting. But Joel Aivo, one of the opposition leaders disqualified from running, said he would not vote and urged others to do the same. "The president has chosen to run against himself in this unprecedented election," the FRD opposition movement said, adding that candidates had been "driven into exile, arrested, thrown in prison".

On Thursday, in the central city of Save, two people died and five others suffered gunshot wounds after troops fired tear gas and live rounds in the air to break up a demonstration. The streets of Save were empty on Sunday, with all businesses closed. Soldiers were patrolling in the city, an AFP reporter said. "We are worried," said Mama Salessou, a 51-year-old trader in front of a Cotonou polling station. "People are afraid because of what happened in the north, even in Cotonou where it was calm."

Economic successes

Talon's backers have rejected accusations the election will be fixed, saying all the conditions are there for a fair vote. The electoral commission's president Emmanuel Tiando told AFP on Saturday that despite delays in dispatching electoral material to the north, there was "nothing preventing this election from taking place". More than 4.9 million people are eligible to vote across more than 15,500 polling stations. Final results are not expected until Monday or Tuesday.

The US, German, French and Dutch embassies as well as the EU delegation in Benin all called for calm and for the vote to go ahead in a free and transparent manner. Following 17 years of military rule along Marxist-Leninist lines, the former French colony opened up into a multi-party democracy in 1990. But since Talon won power as an independent candidate, critics say he has used a special economic crimes and terrorism court and electoral reforms as tools to disqualify the opposition.

"I support the president because we had so many problems before. Water shortages and power cuts... now it's much better," said Ulrich Adjalla, who lives in the economic capital Cotonou. "The president can't be good for everyone," said the unemployed 28-year-old, but "I trust him to create jobs for this country's youth." - AFP