DAKAR (Reuters) - Senegal’s Macky Sall claimed victory on Monday in a hotly contended presidential election over incumbent Abdoulaye Wade, who quickly conceded defeat in a move that could bolster the West African state’s democratic credentials.
Thousands of residents of the capital Dakar poured onto the streets overnight, honking car horns, beating drums and singing in hope of change after 12 years of Wade rule that has seen big infrastructure spending but little progress in tackling poverty.
“The big winner tonight is the Senegalese people,” Sall, 50, said of a smoothly-held election that contrasted with the chaos in neighboring Mali after last week’s coup by army mutineers.
“We have shown to the world our democracy is mature. I will be the president of all the Senegalese,” said Sall, a former prime minister for Wade who acrimoniously split from his mentor in 2008, told an overnight news conference.
Wade, 85, in power since 2000, began his career as president with a sterling democratic reputation but drew criticism for seeking to extend his rule with a third term, setting off street protests in which six people were killed.
“Results coming in suggest Mr Macky Sall has won. As I always promised, I called him in the evening of March 25 to congratulate him,” said Wade, who faced pressure from France, the United States and others not to stand for a new term.
Mamadou Barry, one of thousands partying around Dakar’s Place de l‘Obelisque, the centre of months of anti-Wade protests, said the country where average daily income is $3 was pinning its hopes on Sall for change.
“I voted Socialist in the first round but I am glad Sall won. Now we have to watch him to make sure he sticks to his promises,” the 32-year-old shoe salesman said of a perception among many that Sall - like Wade an economic liberal - must still prove he can bring real change.
“At last, 12 years of misery over. Now we have hope of change,” said Soul Dias, 52, a chauffeur in Dakar.
Sall campaigned for Sunday’s election on lowering the cost of living for Senegalese, including by cutting taxes on rice. He had criticized Wade for pursuing vanity projects - including an African Renaissance Monument standing slightly taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty - instead of helping poor Senegalese.
The election was the latest test for democracy in a region plagued by bloodshed and flawed votes, including Ivory Coast’s which triggered a civil war last year.
Senegal is the only nation on mainland West Africa not to have seen a coup or civil war since independence. A military coup in Mali demonstrated how quickly a democracy can unravel.
Opposition activists had said Wade’s quest for a third term was unconstitutional and some voters viewed him as yet another example of a long-serving African leader seeking to hang on to power.
The Constitutional Council, however, upheld his argument that his first term did not count because it began before a two-term limit was adopted. The ruling set off weeks of protests in which at least six people died.
Early results from Dakar, where Wade has faced his harshest opposition, showed Sall ahead, including in Wade’s own precinct in the upscale Point E neighborhood with 417 votes to Wade’s 120. Full results are expected later on Monday or Tuesday.
Wade fell short of the outright majority needed to avoid a run-off in the February 26 first round, with 34.8 percent to Sall’s 26.6 percent. Defeated candidates then united behind Sall.
The European Union said the election conditions were mostly positive, but noted that the voter list contained errors, including the names of about 130,000 dead people.
Senegal has $500 million Eurobond, which analysts said depreciated before the first round vote due to the deteriorating political and security climate.
“It took only a few hours for Wade to admit he had lost, as early results showed that he was trailing by a wide margin,” said Samir Gadio at Standard Bank.
“A peaceful power shift will boost Senegal’s institutional credentials and historical reputation of political stability, a scenario that should support the country’s Eurobond,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mark John, Simon Akam, Emmanuel Braun, Richard Valdmanis, and Bate Felix; Writing by Richard Valdmanis and Mark John; Editing by Mark Heinrich