DAKAR (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Senegal on Saturday to urge President Abdoulaye Wade to abandon plans to stand for re-election next year, hours ahead of a planned rally by his supporters.
There were fears of a repeat of violence after anti-Wade riots last month but crowds gathered peacefully in the capital Dakar, chanting and whistling under the gaze of riot police.
Senegal, for decades one of West Africa’s most stable nations, has been gripped by a row over whether Wade has the legal right to stand for a third term in February.
Frustrations have been further stoked by running power cuts, high living costs and stubbornly low employment rates, although the protests are nowhere near the proportions of “Arab Spring” uprisings that ousted leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
“We voted for him in 2000 but we don’t want him any more,” said opposition supporter Fatou Gaye of Wade’s first term, sweating in the midday sun in a colorful red, wax-print dress.
“There is no electricity. The youth don’t have jobs. The country is getting harder every day,” she added.
Reuters reporters estimated the size of the crowd at several thousand, including housewives, professionals, pensioners and many of the youth who complain the 85-year-old Wade has failed to do enough to create jobs.
Wade’s critics say changes to the constitution in 2001 bar him from a third term. His backers argue the changes cannot be applied retroactively to his election in 2000, meaning he still has scope for one more mandate. Jurists have until January to rule on the dispute.
“This proves that they are lying to us while they govern. The president says one thing and then the opposition the next day,” said Momar Kebe, a 40-year old truck driver.
The rally was organized by a collection of opposition parties and civil society groups who have come together under the name “June 23 Movement,” after demonstrations then forced Wade to back-track on planned changes to the election law.
The victory appears to have at least partly galvanized the anti-Wade camp, which has long been divided and disorganized.
Idrissa Seck, an ex-prime minister for Wade who could be a contender next year, was present at the demonstration, as was Aminata Tall, a former leader of the women’s wing in Wade’s party but who has also fallen out with him.
Wade’s supporters say they expect half a million people to gather later in a counter-demonstration in support of the president. His critics say they will include many people who will be bussed in for free for a day in Dakar.
Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Mark John