IN the small West African country of Benin, voters stood patiently in line at an outdoor polling place set out under large shade trees. Old men in bare feet and young women with babies stepped up to the table March 10 to pick from one of 13 ballots, each a different color with a different presidential candidate's face printed on it. After slipping ballots in a box, voters who could not write their names - the vast majority - inked fingerprints in the election register.
Although Western observer teams said the voting went smoothly in Benin's first free presidential election in decades, the results raised questions about the democratic transition in this country of 4.6 million people that only recently emerged from 17 years of military dictatorship.
Exhilaration over a violence-free election day turned to bewilderment this week as it became clear that Gen. Mathieu Kerekou, whose authoritarian one-party regime ruled for nearly two decades, had gained enough votes to enter the March 24 runoff.
General Kerekou, who got 26 percent of the vote, will face Nicephore Soglo, who received 37 percent. Mr. Soglo, a former World Bank official, is the prime minister of Benin's transition government created a year ago after Kerekou was pressured to abandon Marxism and adopt a multiparty system.
The election in Benin is being watched by more than a dozen African countries that have moved toward multiparty systems in the past year.
"Benin is a pilot project for democracy in the region," says Koue Folly, an election observer from neighboring Togo. That the dictator Kerekou got so many votes is "a bad sign for all of West Africa," he says.
"Democracy doesn't come in a day," says Grace D'Almeida-Adamon of Benin's High Council of the Republic, which has designed a new constitution. "Kerekou was a failure as a leader. But only 20 percent of our population is literate. And the people in the north have a kind of real solidarity with him."
Regional alliances may be one explanation for Kerekou's strong showing. The vote in the more urban south was split, while Kerekou dominated among farmers in his native north.
For some voters in remote regions without TV, Kerekou may have been the only recognizable face on the ballot. Ironically, Kerekou supporters cite national unity as one of his strong points.
"We had 17 years without regionalism under Kerekou," says Arouna Nouhoum, an art merchant whose shop is plastered with Kerekou campaign posters.
Kerekou's party, the People's Revolutionary Party of Benin, is a well-oiled machine with representatives in every village. In contrast, most opposition parties were created less than a year ago and had little time to organize.
Not all Beninese, however, are willing to forget the Kerekou years. The Committee to Fight the Return to Power of Kerekou demands an accounting of those allegedly tortured and assassinated, as well as of public funds.
The country, once known as Dahomey, gained independence from France in 1960. During the next 12 years, it had 11 changes of government, including five military coups. Kerekou took over in a 1972 coup and changed the country's name to the People's Republic of Benin when he adopted Marxism in 1975.
Benin was one of the first African countries to move toward a multiparty system in the wake of events in Eastern Europe.
"It all started when the country went stone cold broke," says a Western diplomat. In 1988, virtually all of the banks in the country had collapsed. Students and teachers went on strike, followed by the rest of the workers.
Kerekou turned to the World Bank and other donors for help. But these groups insisted on political and economic reform. In February last year, a national conference was called. To the amazement of all, Kerekou agreed not only to a multiparty system but to appointment of Prime Minister Soglo. He took over the government, leaving Mr. Kerekou with his presidential title.
"Every people has its moment, and the national conference was ours," says Louis Tingbo, editor of one of more than a dozen new newspapers that have sprung up in the past year. "Kerekou accepted, because he could not say 'no.' "
Kerekou was praised for stepping aside. But a year later, when he entered the presidential election at the last moment, there was concern. Days before the voting, Kerekou threatened to take control if there was fraud.
Soglo's supporters say their man has been a good administrator during the transition. But Soglo is viewed by some as a cold technocrat. It is also understood that Soglo, in making economic changes, must fire more government workers.
In contrast, Albert Tevoedjre, the candidate who ranked third behind Soglo and Kerekou, lured voters with the promise of creating 20,000 new jobs a year. In a shrewd move, Kerekou promised to alter the Constitution and appoint a prime minister. Many Tevoedjre supporters plan to vote for Kerekou hoping Tevoedjre will be prime minister.
Days before the election, rumors swept the streets that an Army faction loyal to Kerekou was preparing to fight. But after peacefully securing a place in the runoff, Kerekou said in a meeting with United States observers that he was sincere about democracy.
Yet Kerekou's campaign slogan, "You know me well, I know you well," sounds to some like a bid for continuity rather than change. And some voters have decided they know their president too well to vote for him.