DAKAR, Feb 26 – Senegal votes in its most tumultuous polls yet on Sunday with 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade’s bid for a third term having sparked deadly protests in one of Africa’s most stable countries.
The former French colony is one of the continent’s pioneer democracies, boasting an unbroken series of elections since independence in 1960. It is the only nation in mainland west Africa never to have suffered a coup d’etat.
However Wade’s third term bid is proving a stiff test of Senegal’s democratic credentials, prompting international concern after weeks of protests left six people dead.
Roughly 5.3 million people are registered to vote when polls open at 0800 GMT.
Wade is facing 13 opposition candidates including three former prime ministers Idrissa Seck, Macky Sall, Moustapha Niasse and socialist leader Ousmane Tanor Dieng. None has emerged as a frontrunner against Wade.
Despite having served two terms in office, a limit he himself introduced, Wade says 2008 constitutional changes extending term lengths to seven years allow him to serve two more mandates.
The second oldest African leader after Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, 88, Wade says he needs more time in office to finish his “grand projects”. But he has been accused of seeking to line up his son Karim Wade to succeed him.
A high-level African Union peace mission led by Nigeria’s former president Olesugun Obasanjo has proposed that if Wade wins, he retire after two years.
Neither Wade nor the opposition has agreed to this suggestion.
The June 23 Movement, an alliance of opposition parties and activists, called on Saturday for a presidential election to be organised within six to nine months, one in which Wade does not take part.
The anti-Wade campaign has been waged by a diverse group of rappers, rival presidential candidates, rights activists and the Grammy-winning music icon Youssou Ndour — who the courts barred from running for president himself.
But their respective campaigns have been hamstrung by divisions and individual vote lobbying.
Wade is a crafty political survivor who was in the opposition for 25 years before unseating the Socialist Party in 2000, and has remained defiant in the face of the storm of criticism at home and abroad.
He has dismissed opposition protests as “temper tantrums” and heaped derision on calls from France and the United States that he retire.
He would not be dictated to by “Toubabs”, he said, using the Wolof term for westerners.
Paul Melly, an analyst with London-based think-tank Chatham House, told AFP that a Wade first-round win “could produce a further upsurge in protest and anger on the streets.”
Despite its stability, Senegal — a nation of some 13 million whose main earners are fishing, tourism and groundnut production — has a large proportion of people living below the poverty threshold.
Those who support Wade point to considerable infrastructure development under his rule; but his opponents argue that his focus on grand legacy projects has left him out of touch with the concerns of the average Senegalese.
Voting begins at 0800 GMT on Sunday and will run until 1800 GMT the same day.