Senegal's Wade withdraws poll bill as protests rage

DAKAR Thu Jun 23, 2011 5:16pm EDT

1 of 5. A protester gestures during a violent demonstration in Senegal's capital Dakar June 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

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DAKAR (Reuters) - Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade backed down on a proposed change to the election rules on Thursday, completely withdrawing a bill that sparked violent clashes between riot police and protesters in the capital.

Wade's rivals said the proposed change would have guaranteed his re-election against a fragmented opposition in a February poll and had threatened a popular uprising over it in a country long seen as an island of stability in West Africa.

By nightfall the violence had mostly eased but the center of the city was scattered with rocks and the smoldering carcasses of burned out cars. A police source said at least 12 policemen were amongst the more than 100 injured during the violence.

Analysts said the reversal also showed how effectively the opposition and civil society groups could mobilize anti-Wade sentiment amid simmering social tensions in the country.

"The president received messages from far afield, especially our religious leaders, and, as a result, he called on me to withdraw the law," Justice Minister Cheikh Tidiane Sy told the National Assembly.

Wade had earlier withdrawn a proposal to reduce from 50 to 25 percent the minimum score that a candidate would need to win next year's election in the first round -- a level Wade's rivals said would have virtually assured him a first-round win against his fractured opposition.

But other clauses remained and, despite the concession, protesters and members of the security forces, using tear gas and water cannons, continued to clash in areas around the presidency and parliament.

The most controversial remaining clause was the establishment of the position of vice resident.

His rivals say the role was being proposed so he could pass on power to his son Karim, already a "super minister" in charge of a quarter of the nation's budget, but the government said the position would not necessarily be filled by Karim.

Bids on Senegal's eurobond rose by 0.035 cents to 103.554 cents on the dollar, reversing earlier losses.

"We are not at the stage where the market is ready to sell off just because of what's happening, but probably some foreign investors are a little bit nervous about the political outlook ahead of the elections," said Samir Gadio, an emerging markets strategist at Standard Bank.

Ibrahima Sene, a senior member of the opposition Benno Siggil Senegal coalition, praised the protesters for their determination but said their work was only half complete.

"There is still Wade's departure, which we are calling for."

UNDERESTIMATING OPPOSITION?

Senegal has long cherished its reputation as West Africa's most stable and democratic country and has had numerous peaceful elections over the past 50 years since independence from France.

But there are increasing concerns over the concentration of power around Wade, and growing frustrations over worsening public services and higher prices for staples.

A campaign called "Don't touch my constitution!" has been launched alongside a group of rappers aimed at increasing youth involvement in the election.

"I think the government didn't expect such a strong reaction from the opposition and civil society," political analyst Djiby Diakhate said. "Behind this there is the problem of the daily problems in Senegal. We are talking about power cuts, floods, corruption and high cost of living."

"This law was just a spark that exposed the daily problems."

Shops were shuttered as Senegalese riot police earlier fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon in clashes with stone-throwing anti-government demonstrators.

Thousands gathered outside the National Assembly building, where lawmakers were due to vote on the bill. There were also reports of clashes elsewhere in Dakar and other cities.

"Listen to us, we are the voice of the people!" one protester shouted at a line of policemen in riot gear. Others, some wearing bandanas to protect themselves from the teargas, shouted "Liberate Senegal!"

The EU and the U.S., top Senegalese donors, have expressed concern over the efforts to swiftly change the constitution.

(Additional reporting by Bate Felix and David Lewis in Dakar and Carolyn Cohn in London; Writing by David Lewis and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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