By Abdoulaye Massalaatchi
NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger's junta said Saturday's election of a civilian leader could serve as a model for democracy across Africa, as voters turned out for a run-off between two presidential rivals.
The poll comes a year after soldiers ousted ex-president Mamadou Tandja for outstaying his term in office in the West African uranium-producing state, which hopes to turn the page on decades of coups and corrupt leadership.
In contrast to an election dispute in the former regional giant Ivory Coast, Niger's presidential vote has passed off smoothly so far and junta leader General Salou Djibo has won international praise for his professed readiness to step down.
"It is a great day for me and for all Nigeriens," Djibo told reporters as he cast his vote in the capital Niamey.
"If this honorable vote is a success, our democratic achievement will set an example for the rest of Africa," said Djibo, a bespectacled figure who was one of only two military leaders to be invited to France's Africa summit last year.
Favorite to win is veteran opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, who scored 36 percent in the January first round and has since won endorsements from defeated candidates representing around 30 percent of the total vote.
Issoufou stands against Tandja party ally Seyni Oumarou, who scored 23 percent in the first round. Oumarou had the backing of a broad alliance of parties until they defected last month in the hope of securing posts in a future Issoufou government.
Results are expected early next week and the swearing-in of a new civilian leader will mark the end of junta rule in April. Some 6.7 million Nigeriens are eligible to vote.
Both candidates pledged on Saturday to respect the outcome and that any challenges would be through legal channels. Some 2,000 observers have been deployed and international borders shut till midnight in a security measure common in the region.
A desert nation whose uranium riches have drawn billions of dollars of investments, mainly from French nuclear giant Areva, Niger remains one of the poorest countries in the world and has suffered repeated coups since 1960 independence.
Tandja was removed in a February 18, 2010 armed coup that killed three people and is facing graft charges after a junta-led investigation found at least $128 million had been stolen from state coffers during his 10-year rule.
While the election marks a chance for a new start for the country, analysts said challenges remained if it were to break fully with the Tandja era.
"There is no new blood on the scene. It's been the same old figures since time immemorial -- even Issoufou is part of the furniture," said Jeremy Keenan at University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
"The country does have a new opportunity, but whether it grasps it remains to be seen."
(Writing by Mark John; editing by Elizabeth Piper)