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

KRISTA LARSON Associated Press Published:

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) -- Senegal's aging president pumped his fists triumphantly in the air Sunday as he passed supporters at his polling station in the capital, while 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 sub-Saharan Africa where a longtime incumbent could be pushed out of office through a transparent vote, though some already question whether President Abdoulaye Wade would in fact go if he loses Sunday's election.

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

His decision to seek re-election has infuriated many voters in this country on Africa's western coast. When Wade cast his ballot last month in the first round of balloting, some voters even booed him at the poll shouting: "Old man, get lost."

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. 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.

This time around, thousands turned up outside Wade's polling station 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, as supporters ran alongside his vehicle.

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

Jean Diouf, a young accountant waiting in line to vote at another school in the capital, said he believes the country needs a change in direction. The 2007 election was his first chance to vote, and at the time he backed Wade. Since then, the 23-year-old says the cost of living has skyrocketed.

"Things have to change," he said. "If the vote is transparent, Wade has no chance."

Even older voters who had backed Wade in previous years said they thought it was time for new political leadership.

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 Sunday after casting his ballot for Sall. "My children are unemployed. On the national health plan, nothing works."

Wade has overseen unprecedented economic growth in this country of more than 12 million, with new buildings sprouting up everywhere across the seaside capital of Dakar.

However, those gains have not trickled down to most voters, who have battled against rising costs of living, unemployment and frequent power cuts. Violent protests leading up to the election have left at least six people dead, and analysts have warned of further unrest if Wade wins.

On the streets of Senegal's capital, images of Wade on campaign posters have their eyes scratched out. 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."

In an interview at his Dakar home Saturday, Sall told reporters he hoped Wade would respect the ballot's outcome.

"With him, one never knows. In any case, Wade was 25 years in the opposition and he became president afterward," Sall said. "If he is beaten, he must accept it," he 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."

Senegal is one of the region's most mature democracies where voters could successfully oust an incumbent through voting. By comparison, mutinous soldiers in neighboring Mali launched a coup in recent days that has forced President Amadou Toumani Toure into hiding after a decade in power. In Ivory Coast, longtime incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat, bringing the country to the brink of civil war.

In Senegal, Sunday's race is being 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 already has called Wade's candidacy "regrettable" and a threat to the country's democracy.

Wade was once considered rare among African leaders for his commitment to democracy in a neighborhood better known for rule by strongmen. His 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 with the president. 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 have really regressed," he said. "Everywhere there are children who 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.