After a historic change of power in 2000, Senegal, one of Africa’s oldest democracies, elects a new president on Sunday.
Voters have a simple choice: to give a new mandate to incumbent 80-year-old Abdoulaye Wade, who promised much but disappointed some, or to turn the page with one of the 14 other candidates.
The poll is seen an important test for this predominantly Muslim country of 11-million people, which enjoys a good reputation on the continent due to its long-running multiparty system, a free press and stable institutions. Senegal is considered an shining example of African democracy and is the only country in mainland West Africa that has never known a coup since gaining independence from France in 1960.
About 4,9-million voters, almost half of the population, will be called to the ballot boxes on Sunday.
After a long period of uncertainty and rumours of a postponement of the polls, campaigning has been largely run without major incident since February 4, and should be completed on Friday evening.
The number of presidential hopefuls has nearly doubled from only eight in 2000 to 15 this year.
But the large number of candidates is likely to split the vote, making it possible for the polls to go to a second round, planned for March 18, according to observers.
A lawyer by training, Wade was in opposition for 26 years and lost in presidential elections four times between 1978 and 1993 before making it to the country’s top job in 2000. He counts on being elected in the first round.
The octogenarian wants ”to continue to build Senegal”, by continuing his ambitious massive road construction projects.
At the same time he wants to make the electorate forget about the thousands of unemployed youths risking their lives to try to reach Europe in rickety boats.
With him in the race are 14 candidates harshly criticising his rule, the high cost of living, financial scandals and illegal migration.
Ousmane Tanor Dieng (60), of the former ruling Socialist Party (PS), which ran the country for 40 years since independence from France in 1960, is the most credible challenger to Wade.
Discreet as much as Wade is outgoing, Dieng presents himself as the ”sure man” but needs to overcome a lack of charisma.
Idrissa Seck (47) an ex-prime minister, once considered likely to succeed Wade before his fall from grace when he was sacked from the government in 2004 and jailed for seven months over embezzlement charges, sees himself succeeding his former mentor.
His ambiguous political standing, by dangling between the presidential camp and the opposition in recent weeks, has jumbled his image.
But if he scores well by attracting the ”liberals” disappointed by Wade, he could play a determining role in the second round.
Behind this trio are some candidates ready to play spoilsports, one of whom is Moustapha Niasse, twice prime minister under presidents Wade and socialist leader Abdou Diouf.
Niasse’s support for Wade in 2000 was a determining factor in the outcome of the polls. – Sapa-AFP