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Race for Benin's Presidency Wide Open

Benin's presidential campaign is shaping up to be a free-for-all, as new candidates join the field to replace the aging ruler who decided not to seek re-election.

President Mathieu Kerekou surprised many in July when he rejected calls by his supporters to modify the constitution that disqualified him from another term and run again. As he put it then, "if you do not leave power, there will come a day when power leaves you."

A 70-year constitutional age limit on candidates also disqualifies his long-time political rival, former President Nicephore Soglo, who defeated Mr. Kerekou in 1996 elections. Mr. Kerekou subsequently regained the office he had previously held for 19 years as a Marxist. The second time around, Mr. Kerekou ran as a born-again Christian.

The field of candidates for the March presidential poll keeps growing.

The latest addition is Speaker of Parliament Antoine Kolawole Idji, who announced earlier this week he is a candidate. Others include the son of former President Soglo, Lehady Soglo, who is an assistant to the mayor of the capital Cotonou and an expert in taekwondo.

The list also includes a woman - a successful lawyer and former commerce minister, Marie Elise Gbedo.

Two coalitions of small political parties are hoping well-known bankers, Bruno Amoussou and Boni Yayi, will join the race and represent them in the election.

Cotonou journalist, Gerard Guedegbe, says the election could be exciting.

"In Benin, you should know that this presidential election is now one for the Beninese to have a new future," said Gerard Guedegbe. "People are waiting for it because they say so far all the politicians they have seen have failed. They did not give Benin a good economic situation. Now they're looking for a new president that can have that, and that can still give them hope of living in a very secure land."

Unlike nearby Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Benin has been calm in recent years, even as cotton production dwindled and the country continued to slide into poverty.

Pro-democracy activists in Africa have applauded Mr. Kerekou's decision not to follow in the footsteps of his counterparts in countries like Guinea, Gabon, Chad and Uganda, who changed the constitution in order to stay in power.