Senegal polls: Incumbent Macky Sall confident of re-election

Sall took over as president in 2012 after beating his former mentor Abdoulaye Wade
DAKAR, SENEGAL – FEBRUARY 24: Returning officers oversee voters during the Presidential elections on February 24, 2019 in Guediawaye near Dakar, Senegal. 6.7 million voters are expected to cast their vote in the West African country for a second term of President Macky Sall or a second round which would open possibilities to the other candidates. Alaattin Dogru / Anadolu Agency

Senegal voted in a presidential poll on Sunday with Macky Sall confident of being reelected after his main challengers were banned from running.

Sunday’s vote pitted Sall against four lesser-known candidates who campaigned hard against his bid for a second term in the West African country.

But with his two key rivals sidelined over graft convictions — popular former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, son of the previous president — Sall looked set to cruise to victory in the first-round vote.

Voting opened at 0800 GMT and polls started to close 10 hours later, after long queues formed outside a polling station in Fatick, Sall’s hometown, where the 56-year-old cast his vote, an AFP correspondent said.

Other long queues were seen in Thies, Senegal’s third city.

“At the end of this day, the Senegalese people alone will be the winner. And the president chosen will equally have to be president of all Senegalese,” Sall said after voting.

A geologist by training, Sall took over as president in 2012 after beating his former mentor Abdoulaye Wade. This time, he campaigned for a second term championing his “Emerging Senegal” infrastructure project to boost economic growth.

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Some voters were on edge.

“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 in the capital Dakar.

An interior ministry source said turnout stood at 39 percent as of 1300 GMT.

Preliminary results were due after polling ends, with official results expected a day or two later.

The EU observation mission said its overall assessment was “quite positive” among the polling stations it observed.

“There has been very little violence, very isolated incidents, which is very good news,” said Elena Valenciano, head of the mission.

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 have destabilised neighbours such as Mali.

Sall has made transport infrastructure a priority. But basic services, healthcare and education often remain inadequate, sometimes triggering strikes and protests.

His challengers have campaigned hard against his plans for a second phase of the infrastructure project, which critics see as a potential debt burden.

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Among those in contention are Idrissa Seck, a one-time prime minister, former foreign minister Madicke Niang, Issa Sall of the Unity and Assembly Party (PUR) and taxman-turned-MP Ousman Sonko.

Senegal has a population of 16 million but only 6.7 million were registered to vote in the former French colony which gained independence in 1960.

If no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote, a second-round runoff is provisionally scheduled for March 24.

A new system approved by parliament last year required that candidates demonstrate support from a minimum number of citizens and regions.

Once the rules took effect, only seven candidates made the cut, but two of them — Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade — were then disqualified over convictions for misuse of funds.

Both men claim their convictions were engineered to bar them from the race.

Their supporters staged several protests, and last year Amnesty International issued a report highlighting “unfair trials” of senior opposition figures, flagging a lack of “lack of (judicial) independence” in the case against Khalifa Sall.

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Senegal saw two peaceful power transfers in 2000 and 2012 and has never experienced any coups. But election campaigns are often marred by charges of corruption, disinformation and sometimes violence.

Two people died during recent clashes between supporters of rival parties in Tambacounda, the largest city in eastern Senegal.

For polling day, some 8,000 police were deployed throughout urban areas alongside an unspecified number of civilian security staff, officials said.

And around 5,000 observers — including some from the European Union — were monitoring proceedings, the interior ministry said.

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