* 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 win..
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 Friday.
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 centre. (Additional reporting by David Lewis, Mark John, Diadie Ba, Bate Felix and Richard Valdmanis)