Senegal president, ex-protege face off in 2nd vote

KRISTA LARSON Associated Press Published:

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) -- Senegal's president pumped his fists triumphantly in the air outside his polling station Sunday, as voters cast their ballots in a runoff election that could oust the 85-year-old leader after 12 years in power.

It's a rare occasion in the region where a longtime incumbent could be pushed out of office through a transparent vote, though some question whether President Abdoulaye Wade would in fact step down if he loses.

Wade himself became president in 2000 only after the man in power conceded defeat in a historic move. Still, Wade insisted on running for a third term, even though he had originally revised the constitution to impose a two-term maximum.

That decision to seek re-election has infuriated many voters in this country on Africa's western coast. Violent protests have left at least six people dead, and analysts have warned of further unrest if Wade wins.

He faced off Sunday against the very man who ran his last campaign five years ago -- former Prime Minister Macky Sall, who received 26.58 percent in the first round and now has the support of the dozen other opposition candidates.

Sall told reporters he hoped Wade would respect the ballot's outcome.

"If he is beaten, he must accept it," Sall said. "Now, if he doesn't accept it, he will be exposing himself to the anger of the people who have shown that they want change and to turn the page, but I think and I hope that this will not happen."

Wade fell short of the 50 percent needed last month to avoid a runoff, receiving only 34.82 percent -- a poor showing after easily winning outright in 2007. When he cast his ballot last month in the first round of balloting, some voters even booed him at the poll shouting: "Old man, get lost."

This time around, thousands turned up outside Wade's polling station Sunday in a show of force. Dozens of young men stood on their cars, holding their voting cards in the air alongside pictures of an influential religious figure who has lent his support to Wade.

"Wade isn't leaving, he is staying," the crowds chanted in the Wolof language. After casting his ballot, Wade rode in an open-air vehicle down the street, as hundreds of supporters ran alongside his vehicle.

While police fired tear gas at some Wade supporters who were chanting and singing too close to the polling station, voting inside the station was orderly. Some voters held prayer beads, while others queued in the shade of a mango tree waiting to cast a ballot and have their finger marked in indelible red ink.

There were some reports of apparent irregularities, though. At at least one polling station, people were offering free concert tickets for world music superstar Youssou Ndour to anyone who could prove they voted for Sall, the opposition candidate. NDour himself launched a failed bid for the presidency and subsequently threw his support behind Sall.

Senegal's incumbent president has overseen unprecedented economic growth in this country of more than 12 million. At a polling station in the suburb of Grand Yoff, Raymonde Semou, 64, said she personally credited Wade with helping two of her six children find jobs amid high unemployment.

"Before, I had to sell grilled peanuts to feed my family and it was very difficult for me," she said.

Now, her employed sons have bought land to build a house, and she adds there is now electricity in her hometown in Senegal's restive southern Casamance region.

However, those gains have not trickled down to many voters, who are battling against rising costs of living, unemployment and frequent power cuts.

Marieme Ousmane Wele, 55, said she was voting for Sall because the rising prices of basic goods have made her life increasingly difficult.

"I sell cereal made from corn but the price of corn has really gone up. Now, I don't have many clients and it's becoming difficult to feed my own family," she said, as men sat nearby on plastic lawn chairs in the sand listening to news about the election on portable radios.

Even older voters who had backed Wade in previous elections said they thought it was time for a new president.

Mamadou Gueye, 67, credited Wade with many accomplishments but the retired public employee said life remained difficult for him, his two wives and his 20 children.

"We need to replace the political leadership," Gueye said after casting his ballot for Sall. "My children are unemployed. On the national health plan, nothing works."

On the streets of Senegal's capital, images of Wade on campaign posters have their eyes scratched out. And his convoy was hit by rocks in the final days of the runoff campaign.

Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in the short term a Wade victory "won fairly or foully" would be tremendously controversial.

"I think he's kind of pushed Senegalese patience to the limit. And I think it would be understood as a fraudulent election by many Senegalese," she said. "His victory would be a bridge too far ... Even if he wins legally, it will be assumed that he won fraudulently."

The race has been portrayed as a choice between the incumbent elder or the younger Sall, who was born after Senegal won its independence from France.

Sall, 50, is a geologist by training who worked for years under Wade. The two, though, had a subsequent fallout and now Wade has taken to describing Sall as an apprentice who has not yet taken in "the lessons of his mentor."

The United States, though, has called Wade's candidacy "regrettable" and a threat to the country's democracy.

Wade's image began to suffer after he began giving an increasing share of power to his son Karim, who was derisively called "the Minister of the Sky and the Earth" after he was handed control of multiple ministries including infrastructure and energy.

The president also tried to rush a law through parliament that would have reduced the percentage a candidate needed to win on the first round from 50 to around 25 percent. He was forced to scrap the proposal after riots immobilized the capital.

Dr. Johny Assane said he voted for Wade in 2000 when he came to power but has since become disillusioned. While he says he is financially secure, he has seen how others have failed to benefit from Wade's leadership.

"The situation of my patients who come to get medicine in my office has really deteriorated," he said. "Everywhere there are children whose parents are finding it difficult to pay for their treatment and that shows me that the country is not working."

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Associated Press writer Tomas Faye in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.

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Krista Larson can be reached at www.twitter.com/klarsonafrica.