Niamey: Niger`s voters turn a page on a year of military rule on Monday, as they choose a new, civilian president to head one of the world`s poorest countries.
The Sahelian country`s 6.7 million registered voters must choose between three former allies of deposed ex-president Mamadou Tandja and a longtime opponent of the former leader to head the country under the shadow of the growing threat of al Qaeda-linked militants.
Voting booths for the elections -- which include legislative as well as presidential ones -- open at 8:00 am local time (0700 GMT) and close at 7:00 pm.
Following a likely second round scheduled for March 12, a civilian will be named head of the African state on April 06.
The wind-swept capital Niamey was calm on Sunday, just hours after the official end of the campaign at midnight. But posters dotting virtually deserted streets attested to the political battle ahead.
Several candidates have emerged from a scrum of 10 running for the presidency.
Chief among them is opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, whose Social Democratic Party represents change. He faces a challenge, however, from three other candidates intent on blocking his way.
They include Seini Oumarou, the anointed follower of Tandja, who is still languishing in jail, and whose National Movement for the Development of Society he leads.
Former prime minister Hama Amadou is also close to the deposed leader while Niger`s first democratically-elected president in 1993, Mahamane Ousmane, is trying for another term.
Oumarou, Amadou and Ousmane have created a stir in Niger by forging a pact meant to deny Issoufou victory should no candidate emerge with an overall majority and the presidential poll goes to a second round.
In the event one of them finds himself in a head-to-head against the social democrat the other two will give him their full backing.
True to its word, no member of the ruling junta, which agreed to preside over a transition to civilian rule, is standing for election in Monday`s polls.
The junta took power in February last year to end a crisis triggered by then president Tandja`s attempts to extend his rule beyond the constitutionally allowed limits.
Tanja will be following the vote from prison, where he was transferred in mid-January from house arrest on allegations of financial misappropriation.
The four leading candidates have organised a flurry of meetings in recent days after a slow start to their campaigns.
Most candidates had hoped for the election to be delayed, citing a number of lists for the legislative vote that had been rejected due to organisational problems.
"The Parliament will not be representative," a Western diplomat based here warned. "It risks not lasting."
All main candidates in the former French colony have similar platforms, with fighting poverty which afflicts 60 percent of the population the main goal along with a more equitable distribution of income, notably from the mining of uranium of which Niger is a leading producer.
Niger`s history of 50 years since independence from Paris has been a series of coups and military regimes. The past leaves many voters sceptical about prospects for democracy when most of the candidates have ties to previous regimes and Tandja is said to be closely watching developments from his prison cell.