, DAKAR, Feb 25 – Senegal was gripped by uncertainty Saturday on the eve of its most troubled election since independence in which 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade is seeking a controversial third term in office.
No clear frontrunners have emerged out of 14 candidates after an election campaign marred by violent protests which left six dead and shook the west African nation long seen as a beacon of stability and democracy.
The national elections commission has said it is ready for the election, however concerns remain over more than 450,000 voters cards which have not been collected by some of the nation’s 5.3 million registered voters.
After weeks of opposition protests against Wade’s candidacy, the rapper-led youth movement “Fed Up” urged voters not to boycott the poll, but to go fetch their voters cards and vote massively against the incumbent.
“The struggle must continue and will continue at the ballot box. We have been sharpening our weapons, your voters cards. The time has come to use them,” the movement said in a statement late Friday.
The electoral commission vice president Pape Sambare Diop said all voters cards not collected by Saturday “will be sealed and could not be used in the election,” national news agency APS reported.
Among the main contenders taking on Wade in the open electoral race are former prime ministers Idrissa Seck, Macky Sall and Moustapha Niasse, and socialist leader Ousmane Tanor Dieng.
The opposition, who feel Wade tricked his way into running in the election, have already raised fears he will try to steal the vote.
Wade has already served two terms in office, a limit he introduced into the constitution. However, he argues changes to the constitution in 2008 extending term lengths to seven years allow him to serve two more mandates.
A decision by the country’s highest legal body on January 27 validating his candidacy sparked riots which spread around the country with days of consecutive clashes in downtown Dakar.
Observers say Wade needs to secure a first-round victory while the field is still wide open as he would fare badly in a two-horse race.
Paul Melly, an analyst with London-based Chatham House, told AFP if Wade wins in the first round more of the same violence could be seen.
“There is a real possibility that a declaration of a first round Wade win could produce a further upsurge in protest and anger on the streets; but whether opponents could sustain a civil disobedience campaign is less certain.”
The opposition has been divided over strategy and busy lobbying for votes individually, preventing a massive resistance campaign from getting off the ground.
Emerging market analyst Samir Gadio of London-based Standard Bank said an outright Wade win was unlikely given his drop in popularity as he was elected with 55.9 percent in 2007 at his peak.
The former French colony is one of the continent’s pioneer democracies which boasts an unbroken series of elections since independence in 1960 and is the only nation in mainland west Africa never to suffer a coup d’etat.
However the political crisis is putting its democratic credentials to the test and both the United States and France have urged Wade to retire.
Wade was first elected in 2000 to great euphoria as he unseated the Socialist Party from 40 years in office.
His supporters praise him for an infrastructure boom, but his detractors say he has focused on prestige projects while the average Senegalese battles rising food prices and crippling power cuts.
Infuriating the opposition are signs he is lining up his son Karim Wade to succeed him.
Despite its years of stability, much of Senegal remains poor. The country’s economy is concentrated on fishing, tourism and groundnut production, with limited mineral resources and a narrow export base.