Senegal tallied results on Monday in an election in which incumbent Abdoulaye Wade, who is seeking to extend his rule with a disputed third term, was greeted by jeers as he cast his ballot.
The West African nation’s reputation as a haven of stability has been tarnished by pre-poll violence over 85-year-old Wade’s candidacy, which left six dead in a month of riots.
As night fell some votes were counted by candlelight or lamps, and people sat intently listening to results trickling in on their cellphone radios.
In an election fraught with tension, none of the 13 opposition candidates emerged as a frontrunner before the poll as protests over Wade’s candidacy rocked the nation and left six dead.
However Wade’s former protege and Prime Minister Macky Sall’s camp said early results showed the two were “neck-on-neck” and headed to a second round.
Spokesperson Jean-Paul Dias said Wade was polling between 34% and 36%, while Sall stood between 32% and 34%.
“The second round could thus take place between Abdoulaye Wade and Macky Sall.”
Cacophony of boos
The statement came after unofficial results showed Wade was beaten in his own district where he was greeted by a cacophony of boos after voting, angrily pushing one of his bodyguards out of the way as he beat a hasty retreat without speaking to the media.
He was trounced by former prime minister Moustapha Niasse in the small polling station where 484 people voted, with Sall in third place, the national news agency APS reported.
The octogenarian has said he is certain of a first-round win, which analysts say could spark more violence after a month of deadly riots prompted by his candidacy, which the opposition says breaks the rules.
Wade, who says he needs more time in office to finish his “grand projects”, argues that the two-term limit he himself worked into the Constitution to run in the election does not apply to him.
The 2008 constitutional changes extending term lengths from five to seven years allow him to serve two more mandates, he said, an argument accepted by the country’s highest court.
“My majority is so overwhelming that I think I will be elected with a strong percentage in the first round,” Wade told the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche published on Sunday.
He heaped derision on earlier calls from France and the United States that he retire, saying his former allies had criticised him because “I am not docile … I am not a Negro service boy.”
The US state department’s Africa point man Johnnie Carson said the polls had been “orderly, peaceful and well managed”, and that it was critical for the country that they went well.
But Senegal’s Grammy-winning singer Youssou N’dour warned that the country would not accept an “electoral coup” by Wade.
The octogenarian was cheered into power on a wave of euphoria 12 years ago, but his efforts to cling to power and line up his unpopular son Karim to succeed him dented his popularity, shown by the jeers as he voted with his son at his side.
Growing frustration over high unemployment, rising food prices and crippling power cuts also have Senegalese looking for a change.
Both Sall (51) and Niasse (72) have been pegged as main contenders in the electoral race and were both among candidates who took to the campaign trail with vigour, while others rallied protesters in the capital to pressure Wade to step down.
In a polling station in central Dakar, its walls brightly painted with cartoon characters, Cheikh Angai rooted for a Sall victory.
“He will win, no problem. He is a dignified and serious man. Wade is too old, he has done a good job but now he must leave,” he said.
The African Union’s envoy, former Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo, said he was pleased with the voting process by midday, saying he believed “we may have a peaceful and honest election”.
Wade’s supporters praise him for overseeing a development boom, but he is accused of focusing on prestige projects and being out of touch with the needs of the people.
The former French colony of some 13-million people is one of the continent’s pioneer democracies, boasting an unbroken series of elections since independence in 1960. Unlike many of its troubled neighbours it has never suffered a coup. — AFP