March 21, 2016 / 9:03 AM / a year ago

Businessman takes insurmountable lead in Benin presidential poll

Lionel Zinsou, Benin's Prime Minister and presidential candidate, casts his vote during a presidential election at a polling station in Cotonou, Benin March 6, 2016.Akintunde Akinleye

COTONOU (Reuters) - Benin's prime minister conceded defeat to businessman Patrice Talon on Monday as preliminary results from a presidential run-off election gave the cotton magnate an insurmountable lead, paving the way for a peaceful transition of power.

Talon faced off against Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou on Sunday in a poll to decide which of the two would replace President Thomas Boni Yayi, who is stepping down after serving two terms in office.

The election was seen as reinforcing the democratic credentials of Benin, a bastion of stability in a troubled region where military coups are a regular occurrence and polls are often marred by violence.

Preliminary results from the electoral commission put Talon ahead with 65 percent of votes, while Zinzou had 35 percent. Only votes from abroad were yet to be counted, the commission said.

"I feel like a soldier packing for the front. This is not a day of glory - congratulations will have to wait," Talon said on Monday. "The task will not be easy, but we are happy and excited that our country has turned the page."

Talon was once a staunch supporter of Boni Yayi before falling out of favor. Boni Yayi later accused him of involvement in a plot to poison him.

Mediation efforts led to a presidential pardon, however, and Talon returned from exile in France in October.

Campaigning for the election centered mainly on how best to solve the small West African nation's economic problems, which include high unemployment and the impact of a slowdown in its main trading partner, neighboring Nigeria.

"The gap between the too candidates was a big one. Now it's time to get to work," said Joël Amoussou, a civil servant in the commercial capital Cotonou.

Despite the backing of outgoing President Boni Yayi and the main opposition party, Zinsou, a former economist and investment banker, struggled to shrug off the perception that, having spent most of his career abroad, he is an outsider in his own country.

"I called Patrice Talon tonight to congratulate him on his victory and wish him luck," Zinsou said on his Facebook page.

"I would have preferred that my candidate had won the election. But that's the democratic game," said Jorgette Aguenou, a secretary in Cotonou, who said she'd not voted for Talon but accepted his victory.

By relinquishing power after serving two terms in office, Boni Yayi stands in contrast to leaders in other African nations, including Burundi, Rwanda and Congo Republic, who have altered their constitutions to extend their rule.

Writing by Edward McAllister and Joe Bavier; Editing by Alison Williams and Richard Balmforth

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