, Dakar, Senegal, Feb 24 – Senegal went to the polls Sunday in an election that incumbent President Macky Sall is tipped to win after his main challengers were banned from running.
His two biggest rivals in the first-round vote in the West African nation — popular former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, the son of the previous president — were disqualified after corruption convictions in trials questioned by rights groups.
People queued in large numbers as the polling station opened at Fatick in the centre of the country, where Sall, 56, cast his ballot, as well as at Thies in the west, AFP reporters said.
But the start of voting was delayed at Grand-Yoff, the stronghold of Khalifa Sall.
“I want to get home as soon as possible, I’m frightened there will be violence on election day,” said 25-year-old voter Fatoumata Sall.
“I hope this election goes off peacefully and that tomorrow everyone will be going about their business — that will mean a peaceful vote,” said accountant Lamine Diatta after he cast his ballot in Dakar.
President Sall, a former geologist who first took the presidency in 2012 after beating his former political mentor Wade, campaigned for a second term pitching his “Emerging Senegal” infrastructure project to boost economic growth.
“Victory in the first round is indisputable,” Sall told a recent Dakar campaign rally, seeking to emulate all three of his predecessors by landing a second term — Abdoulaye Wade needed just one round in 2007 to secure his second term.
Often held up as a model of stability in Africa, Senegal has enjoyed strong growth. The Muslim-majority country has largely escaped the jihadist attacks that destabilised neighbours such as Mali.
Sall made infrastructure a priority, including a new airport, motorways and a rail link. But basic services, healthcare and education often remain inadequate, sometimes triggering strikes and protests.
Sall faces competition from four lesser-known rivals who campaigned hard against his plans for a second phase of his project, which critics see as a waste of taxpayers’ money and a potential debt burden.
His rivals are former prime minister Idrissa Seck, Issa Sall of the Unity and Assembly Party (PUR), former justice and foreign minister Madicke Niang and tax inspector-turned MP Ousman Sonko.
The five-horse race leaves voters with a limited choice compared to 2012 when 14 candidates vied for the top post, and 2007 when 15 battled it out for the presidency.
Preliminary results were expected soon after polling closes at 1800 GMT on Sunday, but will only become official a day or two later.
Some 6.7 million in a population of around 16 million are registered to vote in a country which gained independence from France in 1960.
– ‘Lack of independence’ –
A candidate must get more than 50 percent to prevent a second-round runoff.
If no one wins more than half the ballots, a second vote is provisionally scheduled for March 24. The exact timing will be determined by how long it takes to officially proclaim the first-round results, and whether there is a challenge.
A new system approved by parliament last year despite opposition party challenges requires candidates to demonstrate they have the support of a minimum number of citizens and regions.
Once the new regulations were applied, only seven candidates made the cut, two of whom were then disqualified. Both Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade have claimed their criminal convictions were engineered to rule them out of the race.
Supporters of the convicted men staged demonstrations, while rights group Amnesty International spotlighted “unfair trials” in Senegal, and a “lack of independence” by the judiciary in Khalifa Sall’s case.
Senegal has known two peaceful power transfers in 2000 and 2012, and no coups. But election campaigns are often marred by charges of corruption, disinformation and sometimes violence.
Recent clashes between supporters of rival parties left two dead at Tambacounda, 420 kilometres (260 miles) east of the capital.
Authorities also reinforced security and legislation, sometimes at the cost of freedom, according to rights groups.
Officials said 8,000 police were on duty in urban areas alongside an undetermined number of civilian security staff. The interior ministry said some 5,000 observers — including 900 from abroad — were monitoring proceedings.
Opposition rallies have recently been banned and pre-trial detention for people suspected of “terrorism” extended from 48 hours to 12 days.
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