Despite running as an independent, Yayi Boni, the ex-regional bank director has emerged as one of the leading candidates in the race to replace outgoing President Mathieu Kerekou.

Yayi Boni, who recently resigned as head of the West African Development Bank, is running in Sunday's Benin presidential election without a party and with no background in politics.

Opponents criticize his lack of experience, saying he does not have enough understanding of the country's needs to govern effectively. But the fact that he is an outsider has struck a cord with many voters, and he has emerged as one of the principle candidates vying for the presidency

"Benin is at a crossroads, "said Yayi Boni. "We were able to install democracy while preserving peace. Today, we are thirsty for an improved standard of living and we are afraid we will not achieve it, even though it is possible."

Despite 16 years of stable democracy, following decades of military rule, Benin remains one of the worlds poorest countries. Its main money earner, cotton, has struggled against heavily subsidized exports from richer countries like the United States. Unemployment and high food prices have sparked discontent among many of Benin's citizens.

Many view Yayi Boni as a chance for real change. It is an image the economist and technocrat has helped nurture.

"What we need is quality leadership with vision, capable of action," he said. "Benin must choose a leader capable of creating unity around a long-term development program for everyone."

Some observers compare the 52-year-old Boni's bid for the presidency to that of former President Nicephore Soglo. Boosted largely by widespread calls for radical change and despite having little background in politics, Mr. Soglo won Benin's first open election in 1991, following 19 years of military rule.

Boni will be counting on the view held by many in Benin that the country has stagnated politically and economically under the rule of outgoing president and former military ruler, Mathieu Kerekou.

Twenty six candidates are contesting the first round of polling. A second round is scheduled to take place in two weeks if no candidate garners more than 50 percent of votes.