DAKAR – Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade was locked in a tight race with his main rival, Macky Sall, on Monday as unofficial poll tallies pointed to a possible run-off between the two for the leadership of the West African country.
Sunday’s election followed weeks of violent street protests against the 85-year-old Wade’s bid for a third term in office – despite a two-term limit – and warnings that Senegal’s reputation as an established democracy hangs in the balance.
Before the vote Wade exuded confidence he would get the more than 50 percent score needed for a first-round victory, and so avoid a second round in which political opponents of all stripes would likely urge their supporters to vote against him.
“Figures at our disposal indicate a second round is inevitable,” Sall, a former prime minister for Wade and fellow liberal, told Reuters, adding that partial tallies showed Wade on 32 percent and him on 28 percent.
Unofficial poll counts circulating in local media showed similar scores, but Wade’s main spokesman Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye told reporters Wade could still get above 50 percent. Wade’s campaign spokesman Amadou Sall was more circumspect, telling Reuters it was too early to see a clear trend.
The vote has been the most contentious in Senegal’s recent history, with Wade critics arguing he has no right to stand and fearing his allies will rig victory. Wade accuses the opposition of resorting to a smear campaign because of a lack of policies.
A poor country on Africa’s western tip with few exploitable resources, the former French colony prides itself on its political stability and a tradition of religious tolerance between majority Muslims and other faiths. Observers said Sunday’s vote was peaceful and broadly well organised.
“We demonstrated the maturity of the Senegalese people,” said student Pierre-Ignace Sagnan. “Wade thought he could win in one round but people showed him they had had enough.”
Boubacarr Wassa, a lifelong Socialist, said he would vote for the centrist Sall in a second round if Socialist candidate Tanor Dieng – who is seen struggling to win 10 percent of the vote – gave Sall a clear endorsement.
“I am a Socialist and I will die a Socialist, but would vote for Macky,” the Dakar newspaper vendor told Reuters.
Moustapha Niasse, 72, another ex-ally of Wade turned rival, said a coalition against Wade in the second round was a must.
“Stopping Wade is an imperative, it is a necessity, this is a must,” Niasse, who was third placed with 13 percent according to partial tallies, told French RFI radio.
On Sunday, scores of voters booed Wade as he cast his ballot at his home precinct in an upscale neighbourhood of the capital Dakar. He was ushered away by aides without giving a statement.
Yet prospects can change rapidly, with Wade claiming strong support in rural areas where figures may be slower to come in.
Senegal is the only country in mainland West Africa that has not suffered a coup since independence and previous elections have gone mostly smoothly, a record it has worn as a badge of democratic distinction.
But the run-up to this election was tense.
Wade’s rivals argued he should not have been allowed to stand because of the two-term limit, but he countered that that rule was brought in after he took power in 2000, so his first term should not count.
Senegal’s top legal body approved Wade’s candidacy in late January, triggering a wave of clashes between rock-throwing protesters and police firing tear gas and rubber bullets in which at least six people were killed.
Sall, 50, is a former Wade protege who held several senior posts, including minister of energy and mines, minister of the interior, and prime minister, before falling out with Wade and resigning in 2008.
He was among several opposition figures active in the M23 protest movement, named after an anti-Wade riot on June 23 last year, which organised near-daily demonstrations in the run-up to Sunday’s vote.
Wade, a veteran of years in opposition before he took power in 2000, has touted infrastructure projects including new roads and an airport as major achievements. But he has been criticised for not doing enough to improve the lives of ordinary Senegalese, particularly in the capital.
Washington has said Wade’s decision to run again was regrettable, while Paris has said it was time for the younger generation to take power.