Senegalese opposition denounce president's bid for third term

At a joint rally Sunday, 8 of 13 opposition candidates, including singer Youssou N'Dour, challenge President Abdoulaye Wade, after period of violent protests. 

Joe Penney/Reuters
Senegalese music star and opposition leader Youssou N'Dour, speaks to supporters at an opposition coalition rally at the start of election campaigning in Dakar, Senegal, Sunday.

The eight candidates came in convoys from their respective corners of Dakar to Obelisk Square in the heart of the Senegalese capital, where crowds of color-coordinated supporters awaited them while listening to political hip-hop anthems in Wolof - the local dialect. A single microphone stood on stage and each of them were introduced as "president" before they took it.

It was not a debate. When everyone says the same thing, how could it be?

"We will mobilize until Abdoulaye Wade withdraws his candidacy, which is irregular, illegal and illegitimate," said Ousmane Tanor Dieng, the Socialist Party candidate.

Of the 13 opposition candidates trying to unseat Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal's February 26th election, eight of them began the campaign period together on Sunday to denounce the 85-year-old president's bid for a third term. The rally was peaceful, unlike the previous week of violent protests that left at least four dead throughout the country.

The uncharacteristic unrest in Senegal started on January 27th, when the country's constitutional council decided that Wade could run in spite of a two-term limit that he signed into law after his first election in 2001. The five judges, all appointed by the president, agreed with Wade's assertion that he could run again because he was first elected under the old constitution.

The council did not, however, approve the candidacy of Grammy-winner Youssou N'Dour, who has been critical of Wade's projects-over-people governing style in recent years. N'Dour attended the campaign rally and was introduced with the same honorific as his would-be colleagues.

"[This coalition] is the hope of the poor and forgotten population in Senegal," Mr. N'Dour said at the rally. 

The coalition calls itself the "June 23rd Movement," or M23 — after the date of its founding last year, when demonstrators forced Wade to withdraw a constitutional amendment that would reduce the number of first-round votes needed to win the election from 50 to 25 percent. The methods that day were violent, but got results and many want to revisit them to force Wade to concede.

"The youth of this country want to storm the presidential palace, like we did the national assembly [on June 23rd]," said Babacar Diop, a 24-year-old student.
Although some speakers at a recent M23 protest echoed this sentiment, most of the group's organizers emphasized the need for peaceful demonstrations. Though some turned violent, they were contained to Obelisk Square and the palace has not yet been stormed.

At Sunday's rally, each of the eight candidates said that the president must respect the constitution and stand down. But three of the candidates are former prime ministers under Wade and political analyst Abdoul Lô says they should, and do, know better.

"The fight they are waging now is for the principles," said Mr. Lô. "They don't really believe that Wade will withdraw."

Ultimately, the opposition candidates, civil leaders and many voters believe they they can oust Wade with the ballot by forcing a runoff. It is a gamble that is based on precedent. There have been two presidents before Wade, and there have been two peaceful transitions of power. 

The coalition hopes 2012 will see a third.

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