Elections may go to runoff in Senegal, West Africa's stablest democracy

Initial results suggest that Senegal's President Wade may be forced to go for a runoff against his own protege, Macky Sall. Observers appealed for peaceful elections.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, right, casts his vote in presidential elections, in his home Point E neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal, Feb. 26. After weeks of riots, Senegalese voters began casting their ballots Sunday in an election that threatens the country's image as one of the oldest and most robust democracies in Africa.

Senegal’s presidential elections appears to be headed for a runoff, opening up a period of potential unrest in West Africa's stablest democracy.

With 10 percent of the ballots counted, President Abdoulaye Wade is estimated to have won just 24 percent of the vote, with his nearest competitor in a field of 13 candidates having won 21 percent. According to Senegalese law, a presidential candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election.

It’s far from the crushing victory that President Wade predicted and reflects the divisions he unleashed by running for a third term after promising to serve only two. A runoff, if handled well, could bring settlement to that dispute. But any runoff would put democracy to the test in Senegal, the one country in the region never to have had a military coup d'etat.

Overall, the vote on Sunday appeared to be peaceful and orderly across the country. But as Wade cast his vote in Dakar, he was booed by crowds at the polling station, the BBC reported. Some Senegalese shouted, “Get out, old man,” while others chanted: “Go away Wade.”

President Wade came to power promising to help turn Senegal into West Africa’s Singapore, and during his tenure, the country has experienced 4 percent growth rates, higher literacy rates, and increased life spans. It has also attracted an influx of foreign investors and French banks. What makes this influx all the more remarkable is the fact that Senegal is not an oil-rich economy, like Nigeria, or rich in natural resources such as gold, like Ivory Coast and Ghana. As the Wall Street Journal's reporter, Drew Hinshaw writes, Senegal’s main attraction is its stability and its relatively large educated work force.

Wade remains popular for these achievements in many parts of the country, but for urban youths – 30 percent of whom remain unemployed even in these prosperous times – Wade is the man to blame for their sorrows.

Following a Constitutional Court decision, allowing Wade to run for a third term, heavy protests broke out in the capital city of Dakar. Police dispersed the crowds with tear gas, truncheons, and rubber bullets, and six people were killed. Youth activists promised to make the country “ungovernable” if Wade won the election, and opposition candidates said protests would continue if it appeared there were any irregularities in how votes were tallied.

"I wish to tell Wade that everyone is watching Senegal. He needs to make sure that the vote is extremely transparent," international pop star Youssou N'dour was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. Mr. N’dour had planned to run against Wade but was disqualified on a technicality by the constitutional court. "We will not accept for someone to twist our ballot."

Leading the African Union’s observer mission, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo appealed to Senegalese to “avoid all forms of violence during the election” and to “consolidate the democratic achievements of Senegal.”

Johnnie Carson, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs who also observed the Senegalese elections on Sunday, praised the orderliness of polling stations. But the US government has been critical of Wade’s decision to, in the words of the US ambassador Daniel Lukens, “put the security of his country in peril by insisting on seeking a third mandate.”

Now, all eyes turn to Wade’s chief opponent, Macky Sall, who was once a Wade protégé.

With initial results showing Mr. Sall in a tight race with Wade, Sall predicted that a runoff elections was “inevitable.”

"The figures in our possession, published in the media, and the trends from polling stations show that a second round is inevitable,” Sall said in a statement published on his website, according to the Agence France Presse.

"We have won the biggest departments in the country. We have won in each of the four departments in the Dakar region. I warn the sorcerer's apprentices against any attempt to confiscate the people's will. The massive rejection of the outgoing president has been shown in the results."

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