Political standoff on eve of Senegal election

Rival sides refuse African Union proposal, as nation awaits vote to decide incumbent's quest for disputed third term.

    Africa's top envoy has proposed Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade retire in two years if he is re-elected, seeking to ease tensions on the eve of the nation's contentious polls.

    The opposition countered the proposal on Saturday by saying that any negotiations must involve fresh elections without the 85-year-old Wade.

    As the two sides bickered, the West African country anxiously awaited crucial polls in which the incumbent Wade is seeking a disputed third term.

    Wade's candidacy, which came after he circumvented term limits that he had previously introduced, led to weeks of protests that have left six people dead in a country long known as a haven of stability on the continent.

    The African Union  (AU) president Thomas Boni Yayi on Saturday called for calm, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was "concerned" by the violence and urged "peaceful and transparent" elections.

    Nigeria's ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo "introduced a new element, a road map which states Abdoulaye Wade will only stay in power for two years if he wins", Abdoul Aziz Diop, a spokesperson for the opposition June 23 Movement (M23), said.

    He said that while M23 was open to negotiations, its first priority was "that Abdoulaye Wade loses the election".
    Soon afterwards, M23 released a statement with several counter-proposals.

    "The parties commit to organising a presidential election, in which Wade will not take part, within six to nine months," read a statement.

    M23 also called for a new, independent constitutional council and electoral commission and a review of the electoral code.

    Obasanjo arrived in Dakar on Tuesday as head of a joint mission launched by the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and has met with Wade, the opposition and diplomats.

    His visit followed days of riots over Wade's candidacy that turned parts of Dakar into danger zones as police fired teargas at rock-throwing protesters who had set up flaming barricades.

    With polls set to open, the rapper-led youth movement "Fed Up" urged voters against boycotting the election, encouraging them to get their voter cards and vote massively against the incumbent.

    "The struggle must continue and will continue at the ballot box. We have been sharpening our weapons, your voters cards. The time has come to use them," the movement said in a statement late Friday.

    Contested candidacy

    Wade has already served two terms in office, but argues that changes to the constitution in 2008 extending term lengths to seven years allow him to serve two more mandates.

    The country's top legal body validated his candidacy on January 27, sparking riots around the country and clashes in downtown Dakar.

    SENEGAL'S ELECTIONS

      Spotlight: Senegal's elections
      In pictures: Senegal prepares for elections
      Q&A: Senegal faces democratic test
      Profile: Opposition candidates
      Senegal: Election explainer
      Opinion: Senegal's petit dictator is the West's man

    Observers say Wade needs to secure a first-round victory because he would fare badly in a second round when the field contracts to two candidates.

    Thirteen opposition candidates are on the first round ballot, including three former prime ministers, but among them no clear front-runner has emerged.
     
    Foreign partners have voiced concern over the unsettled campaign period - uncharacteristic for Senegal, which boasts an unbroken series of elections since independence in 1960 and has never suffered a coup.

    The United States has sent its top Africa diplomat Johnnie Carson to Senegal to underline its "desire to see calm, free, fair elections", the US state department said Friday.

    Some worry that more than 450,000 unclaimed voter cards boost the prospect of fraud, but the elections body insists it is ready to manage the polls. Roughly 5.3mn people are registered to vote.

    Paul Melly, an analyst with London-based think-tank Chatham House, told the AFP news agency that a Wade first-round win "could produce a further upsurge in protest and anger on the streets."

    Wade was first elected in 2000 to great euphoria after unseating the Socialist Party that had been in power for 40 years.

    His supporters praise him for an infrastructure boom, but his detractors say he has focused on prestige projects while  average Senegalese people battle rising food prices and crippling power cuts.

    Infuriating the opposition are signs that indicate Wade is lining up his son to succeed him.   

    With reporting from Azad Essa in Dakar. Follow him on Twitter: @azadessa 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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