* Confidence in power of the ballot still seems high
* Early returns suggest Wade will face tough run-off
* "Sit-tight" rulers have weakened African democracy
By Pascal Fletcher
DAKAR, Feb 27 In one polling station in
Senegal's dusty capital Dakar, election officials counted votes
in a civic health bureau, surrounded by peeling posters giving
advice on how to avoid malaria and have a healthy pregnancy.
The West African state went into Sunday's presidential
election overshadowed by dire warnings that its precious
democracy and stability, unsullied by coups or civil war since
independence from France in 1960, was sick and in mortal danger.
Pre-election riots protesting octogenarian President
Abdoulaye Wade's decision to seek a third term had claimed at
least six lives, and opponents said they feared his supporters
would try to rig the polls to keep him in office.
Some even said they feared a civil war.
But as they cast their ballots peacefully on Sunday, most
Senegalese voters seemed genuinely confident they could infuse
new blood into their oft-praised electoral democracy, resolving
the political conflict through the ballot box.
"We don't have minerals or resources here, what we have is
peace and sunshine. We have to keep it. If that disappears, it
could take us 50 years to get back," said Ouma Boudian, an
opposition representative who observed vote-counting.
Sunday's vote transpired without any major violence and
early unofficial tallies seemed to show Wade headed for a likely
second round run-off with his main rival and former prime
minister Macky Sall, which the president could struggle to
Authorities in Senegal's 45 departments (counties) are due
on Tuesday to release local results from which a national trend
should be clear. Full provisional results could take until
In Dakar's sprawling working class neighbourhood of
Parcelles Assainies, a warren of dust-carpeted streets and
alleys clogged with vehicles, pedestrians, donkey-carts and
goats, voters lined up patiently in their hundreds to make their
ballot count. Observers reported a generally good turnout.
Most electors expressed a healthy faith in the power of
their vote. "We want to change the country," said 25-year-old
electrician Abdoul Sembene, voicing a widely held view.
Some see this democratic spirit coming under pressure in
Africa, where after the blossoming of multi-party democracies
from the late 1980s and early 1990s, so-called "sit-tight"
rulers who rig elections, extend terms and cling to power have
created what some analysts call "democracies without democrats".
Fuelling the desire for a democratic renewal in Senegal are
deep feelings of anger against the high cost of living. Citizens
complain bitterly that prices for food staples like rice, and
for gasoline, have spiralled skywards in recent years, while
jobs have shrunk. "Life is expensive," is a constant lament.
Wade, 85, was long respected as an influential, democratic
African leader. But his insistence on running for a third term
in the face of a two-term limit he himself introduced through
2001 constitutional reform has brought unflattering comparisons
with the continent's remaining long-time "Big Men" rulers.
Arguing that age is a valued asset in Africa, Wade points to
big-ticket infrastructure projects completed under his rule.
He has rejected U.S. and French calls for him to cede power
to a younger generation and predicted a "crushing" first round
election victory. But the fact he was booed in his own voting
district on Sunday was a sharp reality check for the president.
A presidential spokesman repeated the prediction of a first
round win on Monday, despite a flood of unofficial early returns
reported by the media which suggested a second round run-off
between Wade and Sall, 50, seemed the most probable outcome.
MOBILE PHONE CALCULATORS
In some 12,000 voting stations set up in schools and
government buildings across the country, ballot counting had got
underway as soon as polls closed in the early evening of Sunday.
In station number 5 installed in a civic centre in Parcelles
Assainies in Dakar, election officials huddled with political
party representatives in a small room plastered with medical
posters, as goats bleated and taxi horns blared outside and dust
filtered in through the mostly glassless windows.
Mobile phone calculators went into action as the group
laboriously totted up the total of voters who had cast ballots.
When this tallied with the number of envelopes in the
transparent plastic urn, a round of relieved applause went up.
After the cramped table was given a wipe to remove a film of
powdery grime, the brightly coloured ballot slips were carefully
counted out into separate piles, while the group marked off the
votes in their counting records.
The initial results were posted up outside the station
within three hours of the end of voting, a pattern mostly
repeated at stations around the country. This allowed local
journalists to report a blizzard of early returns that radio
stations broadcast immediately over the air waves.
There was a sense of palpable excitement in the streets of
the capital when it became clear that a tight race was in the
offing between Wade and his main rival Sall, raising hopes that
a fair, open outcome of the ballot could avoid any violence.
RESOCIT, a network of more 2,000 local observers who watched
the vote, reported an "astonishingly" low number of incidents of
violence and fraud and declared the polls acceptable.
As Senegal waited impatiently for the electoral commission
to announce its first provisional results, voters said they were
hopeful Senegal's envied democracy could survive it latest test.
"We just want a clean election," said Malick Billy, a
24-year-old student, who was the last to cast his vote in
polling station number 5 at the Parcelles Assainies civic
(Additional reporting by David Lewis, Mark John, Diadie Ba,
Bate Felix and Richard Valdmanis)