Calls for calm ahead of Senegal's cliffhanger poll

By Stephane Barbier
By Stephane Barbier

3/24/2012 2:50:01 PM -

DAKAR (AFP) - Senegal was called to calm on Saturday on the eve of a run-off election in which incumbent Abdoulaye Wade, 85, is looking to extend his 12-year rule in a face-off against the full might of the country's opposition.

The elections commission urged the candidates not to declare victory prematurely, while observer missions called for a clean vote in the west African country whose reputation for stability is on the line.

The decider poll comes after two months of suspense in Senegal, which was rattled by deadly riots over Wade's bid for a third term after he circumvented a constitutional term limit.

Although former premier Macky Sall is tipped to win thanks to the full support of the opposition, Wade has voiced an unwavering belief that he will win, raising fears over whether the poll's outcome will be accepted either way.

The split opposition vote was some 65 percent in the first round against Wade's 34.8 percent.

The elections commission noted several clashes between rival supporters during the election campaign, which was relatively calm compared with that ahead of the first vote on February 26, when riots left six dead.

Elections chief Doudou Ndir told journalists not to play down the ongoing violence and urged the candidates "to avoid making any premature declaration over the results."

African Union observer chief and former Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo met both candidates and urged them to "preserve the democratic tradition and heritage in Senegal," one of Africa's pioneer democracies.

The head of the EU observer mission, Thijs Berman, called for the "respect of democratic rules."

In total, 300 foreign observers will monitor the vote, but Sall, 50, urged vigilance, fearing that the incumbent Wade will try to manipulate a victory.

"The defeat of President Wade is inevitable," he said at his final rally outside the capital on Friday, flanked by 12 opposition candidates who fell out in the first round. "We will not accept that he steals the votes of Senegalese citizens."

Wade said "the election will be transparent and exemplary" while on a final tour of the capital on Friday.

He earlier told a local television station: "There is only one outcome. I win. The possibility of my defeat is absurd."

The octogenarian's inability to clinch an outright victory in the first round was a humiliating blow to a leader who was hugely popular when first elected in 2000 after 25 years as opposition leader.

In 2007, he won in the first round with 55 percent of the vote, but his popularity has plunged in recent years amid rising food prices.

Power cuts that crippled economic activity last year were repaired in time for the election campaign.

Growing public anger, along with the widespread perception that Wade is trying to line up his son Karim to succeed him, exploded into violence when the country's constitutional court rubber-stamped Wade's controversial candidacy in January.

Despite having served two terms, a limit he himself introduced, Wade says later changes to the constitution allow him to serve two more mandates as the law is not retroactive.

While Wade receives kudos for an aggressive infrastructure drive, critics say he has focused on fanciful legacy projects to the detriment of good governance initiatives.

Despite its stability, Senegal -- a nation of some 13 million whose main earners are fishing, tourism and groundnut production -- has a large proportion of people living below the poverty threshold.