Niamey: The people of Niger voted for a new civilian president on Saturday in landmark polls that the outgoing head of the military junta said should serve an example of democracy to the whole of Africa.
Thirteen months after Mamadou Tandja was jettisoned from office over his attempts to amend the constitution, voters were choosing between a former ally of the toppled president and a veteran opposition leader in the runoff poll.
General Salou Djibo, installed as leader of the junta after the February 2010 coup, was among the first to cast his ballot as polls opened at 0700 GMT.
"This is a great day for me and for all the people of Niger," Djibo said.
"If we can hold a successful election then together we will have accomplished bringing about a democracy that can serve as an example to Africa," he told reporters at a polling station in the capital Niamey.
The run-off pits veteran opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, 59, against former prime minister Seini Oumarou, the 60-year-old leader of Tandja`s party.
Issoufou, a longtime opponent of Tandja`s 10-year rule, is considered the favourite after taking the lead in the first round vote on January 31 with 36 percent of the vote, compared to 23 percent for second place Oumarou.
Niger`s ruling junta vowed to usher in civilian government after it took power last year to end a crisis triggered by Tandja`s attempts to extend his rule beyond the constitutional limits. No junta member was a candidate in the election.
Social Democratic Party leader Issoufou has strengthened his candidacy by forging alliances, especially with Hama Amadou, another former premier under Tandja who garnered 19 percent in the first round vote.
"With our allies, we count on 70 percent of the votes" for "an unequivocal victory," Issoufou has said.
His rival Oumarou, however, with his National Movement for the Development of Society has countered that the elections "are not won in advance".
During the largely peaceful campaign, both candidates have promised to dissolve Parliament and organise Legislative Elections for a more representative Assembly in the vast, landlocked country on the edge of the Sahara desert.
They have also expressed similar goals for Niger, an impoverished nation that has become a base for al Qaeda-linked militants.
They have vowed to tackle the poverty that afflicts some 60 percent of the population, protect against the cyclical food crises, and assure an equitable distribution of the country`s wealth from uranium.
Djibo has called on the candidates to respect the results of Saturday`s poll.