DAKAR (Reuters) - President Adboulaye Wade accused foreign powers of being duped by his political rivals on Sunday after casting his ballot in Senegal’s most contentious poll in its recent history.
The 85-year-old leader, whose bid for a third term triggered deadly street riots in the normally peaceful West African country before a February first round, was urged by the United States and former colonial power France to give up power.
“Mr. Carson and Mr. Juppe were intoxicated by Senegalese hucksters who (...) said Senegal will burn if I run,” Wade said, naming French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson.
“As we saw, the first round passed in good conditions and peacefully, and the results were accepted by all,” he added, saying he hoped to “normalize relations” with Washington and Paris if he wins a new term.
Wade is facing former ally and prime minister Macky Sall in an election broadly seen as the latest test for democracy in a region plagued by flawed polls and bloodshed.
Senegal is the only nation in mainland West Africa not to have experienced a coup since independence, but a putsch in neighboring Mali last week has raised security fears and shown how quickly a strong democracy can unravel.
“If Senegal can vote peacefully, that would give a lesson in democracy for Mali,” said Thijs Berman, head of the European Union election observer mission in Senegal.
Wade fell short of a majority in the February 26 first round with 34.8 percent to Sall’s 26.6 percent. The other first-round candidates have now united behind Sall, improving his chances.
Both candidates have said they cannot envisage defeat, paving the way for a possible dispute when results come in on Monday or Tuesday, and a possible resumption of street protests. There are more than five million registered voters.
Wade, wearing a gleaming white traditional robe and accompanied by his wife and son, was greeted with cheers as he arrived at the polling station - a contrast to the first round when scores of people booed him.
Earlier, police fired tear gas nearby to disperse disciples of a local religious leader who were chanting pro-Wade songs. The gas forced voters to cover their mouths with handkerchiefs as they queued.
Opposition activists say Wade’s quest for a third term is unconstitutional and some voters see him as yet another example of a long-serving African leader seeking to hang on to power.
A top legal body, however, has upheld his argument that his first term does not count because it began before a two-term limit was adopted. And his supporters say he deserves more time in office.
“We must let him who started his work continue with it,” Yaye Fatou Diop, said a 25-year-old communications worker voting in a Dakar suburb. “I am for progress. He has done a good job, he has done the best he can do.”
Wade hopes to extend his 12-year-rule by wooing those who did not vote in February and by courting religious leaders who wield a strong influence in the majority Muslim country.
Sall’s manifesto includes a revamp of Senegal’s outage-prone energy sector and renewed efforts to end a simmering rebellion in the southern Casamance region, once a tourist destination.
Sall, 50, also hopes to lure voters with a promise to cut taxes on basics such as rice. Rising food prices mean some households spend half their income to ensure a daily communal bowl of rice and sauce.
Poverty and mass unemployment are the main voter grievances. Wade, who came to power in 2000, argues that he has done more than the rival Socialists did in the 40 years they ruled since independence from France in 1960.
“Poverty has been wiped out of Senegal, but I do not deny there are some pockets in major cities. I’ll take care of it after the elections,” Wade said during his last campaign rally in Dakar on Friday.
Reflecting investor concerns, Samir Gadio, London-based emerging markets analyst at Standard Bank, said the market had been negative on Senegal’s $500 million Eurobond before the first round vote due to the deteriorating political and security climate.
“The smooth electoral process since and the possibility of an orderly transition in coming days would boost Senegal’s historical reputation of political stability,” Gadio said in a note. “The main stress point is obviously whether both parties will immediately accept the outcome of Sunday’s contest.”
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun and Richard Valdmanis; Writing by Bate Felix and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Alistair Lyon