DAKAR/FATICK, Senegal (Reuters) - Senegal President Macky Sall’s team claimed he won re-election in the first-round of voting on Sunday, but the opposition said preliminary election results showed a run-off was unavoidable.
Sall, whom rights groups have criticized for squeezing out rivals, was favored to win after boosting economic growth in his first term, but he had to win a majority of votes to avoid a second round of voting on March 24.
The West African nation has long been viewed as the region’s most stable democracy, with peaceful transitions of power since independence in 1960.
Prime Minister Mahammed Dionne, a Sall ally and appointee, said early results showed Sall had won 13 out of 14 regions, securing 57 percent of the vote.
“We must congratulate the president for his re-election in the first round,” Dionne told journalists.
His comments were at odds with earlier statements from main opposition candidates Ousmane Sonko, a former tax inspector popular with youth, and Idrissa Seck, a third-time contender and former prime minister. They said a second round of voting was on the cards.
“The results compiled so far allow us to say this,” Seck said at a press conference with Sonko. “We will not allow the outgoing president to suppress the will of the people.”
The official results were due by Friday at the latest.
Sall has won support by launching an ambitious reform and infrastructure program that helped Senegal’s small fish-exporting economy expand more than 6 percent last year, one of the highest rates in Africa.
The 57-year-old president has also promised to deliver universal healthcare and better access to education.
After voting in Fatick, pensioner Adama Sakho, 81, said he believed Sall would win in the first round, praising his social spending policies.
“I’m retired, and now in one month I receive the same amount of money I used to make in three months,” he said.
Opinion polls were banned in the run-up to the vote, but a survey by a Senegalese data company in November gave Sall 45 percent support. Of his four rivals in the smallest field of candidates since 1988, none had more than 16 percent.
Despite Sall’s popularity, some Senegalese question whether a high-speed train, new motorways and a swanky conference center will benefit average citizens in the former French colony of 15 million people where the average income is less than $200 a month.
Many people do not have reliable water or power supplies.
University professor Bakary Manga, 43, said he would vote for Sonko as he was disappointed in Sall’s first term.
“It was a big nonsense with him. The cost of his projects is excessive; we can do much better with much less,” he said as he queued at a polling station in Dakar.
Rights groups have criticized the exclusion of two popular candidates.
Former Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, son of former President Abdoulaye Wade who was in power from 2000 to 2012, were barred from running due to corruption convictions.
The former president said the vote was being rigged and told supporters of his son to boycott the poll.
The government dismissed the criticism, promising a free and fair vote.
Sonko told supporters at his final rally on Thursday he would congratulate Sall if the vote was fair. “But if he steals the victory, I ask the youth to walk to the presidential palace and chase him out,” he said.
Writing by Sofia Christensen and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Edward McAllister, Robin Pomeroy and Cynthia Osterman