DAKAR, March 25- Senegalese voted on Sunday in a run-off election in which the 85-year-old incumbent Abdoulaye Wade is fighting off a mass opposition effort to foil his controversial bid to stay in power for a third term.
Having failed to deliver a crushing first-round victory a month ago, Wade faces a stiff challenge from his former prime minister Macky Sall, who has the full weight of the opposition behind him.
Long lines snaked outside voting stations as people waited to vote in the decider poll after two months of suspense which has seen the reputation of one of Africa’s pioneer democracies put on the line amid deadly riots.
As a coup played out in neighbouring Mali, EU election observers urged Senegal to prove its credentials as a strong democracy in a troubled region.
“I hope as a democrat that Senegal will show a strong example in this African region which is so tormented,” said EU mission chief Thijs Berman as he visited a polling station in the Dakar suburb of Parcelles Assainies.
Senegal has typically been hailed as one of the region’s success stories, being alone among its mainland neighbours never to have undergone a military coup.
The elections commission noted several clashes between rival supporters during the election campaign, but it was calm compared with the run-up to the first-round vote in February, when near-daily riots left six dead.
Sall, 50, accompanied by his wife, cast his vote in his hometown Fatick in central Senegal, praising the turnout as long lines formed at polling stations around the country.
“This shows our country is a major democracy and that Senegalese know how to make their choice responsibly,” he said.
Both candidates have declared they cannot lose, raising fears that the poll’s outcome will inevitably be challenged.
“If all goes well, we should be at around 70 percent,” Sall told AFP in an interview on the eve of the run-off. “Wade cannot win.”
But Wade has said the same as his rival, calling the idea of his losing “absurd.”
The election commission on Saturday urged the candidates not to declare victory prematurely as results come in.
Around the capital hundreds queued up to vote, raising hopes of a better turnout than in the first round when only 51 percent turned up.
“I want to vote in peace, and I want Macky Sall to win this election because times are hard in Senegal,” said Ndeye Fall, a teacher voting in the working-class suburb of Derkle.
While Wade came first in the February 26 vote with nearly 35 percent of the vote to his ex-protege’s 26 percent, the octogenarian is in an uncomfortable position as Sall has secured the support of all the other candidates during the electoral campaign.
Wade has faced stiff rebukes from abroad with former colonial power France and the United States urging him to retire as he pursued his controversial bid for a third term by circumventing a constitutional term limit.
Despite having served two terms, a limit he himself introduced, Wade says later changes to the constitution allow him to serve two more mandates as the law is not retroactive. This argument was upheld by the country’s constitutional council.
Some 5.3 million voters are registered to cast their ballots in the run-off election, which will finish at 1800 GMT under the gaze of 300 international observers.
Wade’s inability to clinch an outright victory in the first round was a humiliating blow to a leader who was hugely popular when first elected in 2000 after 25 years as opposition leader.
He was roundly booed at his home polling station when he cast his vote in February.
In 2007, he won in the first round with 55 percent of the vote, but his popularity has plunged in recent years amid rising food prices, power cuts and the widespread perception that he is trying to line up his son Karim to succeed him.
Power outages that crippled economic activity last year were repaired in time for the election campaign.
Growing public anger exploded into violence when the country’s constitutional court approved Wade’s controversial candidacy in January.
While Wade has been praised for an aggressive infrastructure drive, critics say he has focused on fanciful legacy projects to the detriment of good governance initiatives.