Dakar, Senegal – Vote counting has begun after Senegal’s presidential runoff that pitted ageing incumbent Abdoulaye Wade against Macky Sall, who is leading a united opposition.
Polling stations closed after a largely peaceful electoral exercise on Sunday that attracted more than five million voters, with local reports suggesting a high turnout.
Preliminary results from Senegalese living overseas had started filtering in, but without official results from the election commission it was not clear which of the two candidates was commanding a comfortable lead.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from the capital Dakar, said Sall had won 42 of the 50 polling stations whose results had been announced. Wade also lost at the very polling station where he voted.
But our correspondent said that “this is a very small sample”, adding that it was difficult to get a voting pattern.
Public and private radio stations announced that Sall had secured more votes than Wade in Port Gentil, Gabon, and Marseille, France, Senegal’s former colonial ruler.
Both sides had expressed confidence before voting started across the West African nation, a month after a first round vote whittled the field down to two candidates.
Wade said that he was pleased that the elections were going well and urged people to accept the results even if he lost the election.
When he arrived with his family to vote at the Mouhamadou Fadilou Mbacke polling station in Dakar, the 85-year-old Wade was given a hero’s welcome by thousands of his supporters.
Moments earlier, police had fired tear gas into a group of protesters who screamed “Long live Wade” and accused the opposition of being “supported by homosexuals”.
Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye, Wade’s spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) was “ready and more than confident” and “the voters are with us”.
“There is only one possible outcome of this election, and that is we will win,” he said.
Protests had broken out in the streets outside the polling station where Wade was expected to cast his ballot.
Protesters said they wanted to make sure that opposition supporters did not taunt and ‘boo’ Wade. Police fired teargas into the crowd which had refused to back down, but no casualties were reported.
Meanwhile, El Hadj Kasse, Macky Sall’s spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that his Alliance for the Republic (APR-Yakaar) party was “perfectly ready”.
“For 40 yearsg this country was run by the same people, and let me tell you, they did nothing for this place. The little that has happened here [in Dakar] is only because of Wade”
– Sory Ba, supporter of Abdoulaye Wade
“We know we have completed an excellent campaign … [and are] extremely confident because everybody notices today that the Senegalese need change,” he said.
Wade’s candidacy prompted opposition protests and street clashes prior to the first round amid dismay over his decision to seek a third straight term, despite himself introducing a two-term limit.
Wade, president since 2000, argued that the term limit could not be applied retroactively, and was backed by the country’s constitutional council.
In the first round of voting, he secured 34 per cent of the vote, while Sall managed to win 27 per cent. But 12 opposition parties have rallied behind the APR-Yakaar leader and former prime minister, appearing to give him an edge in the runoff.
After voting in Fatick, Sall said he hoped the ballot would reveal the people’s will and that he hoped there would not be any surprises. He also called on supporters to refrain from making any announcements before elections officials did so and said he was satisfied with the transparency of the vote.
Analysts say that dissatisfaction with the economy, with almost half the population unemployed and about 60 per cent living in poverty, has boosted opposition to Wade’s rule.
“Since 2007, growing unemployment, frequent power failures, high basic commodities prices and corruption eroded the popularity of President Wade and provided a platform for the emergence of civil society activists to challenge the regime,” David Zoumennou, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, told Al Jazeera.
But Zoumennou said it was unclear whether Sall offered anything different.
“Fighting to stop Wade’s ambition has been the main concern for the first round of the elections. But we can argue that, being the brain behind the economic liberalism under Wade, he is likely to pursue the same economic doctrine.”
While Wade’s opponents have voiced cautious optimism about the outcome of Sunday’s vote, the incumbent, who spent 30 years in opposition prior to his election, continues to command a loyal supporter base.
“For 40 years this country was run by the same people, and let me tell you, they did nothing for this place. The little that has happened here [in Dakar] is only because of Wade,” Sory Ba, a fisherman at the capital’s Colobane market, told Al Jazeera.
Yassine Seck, 57, a fruit vendor concurred. She says that Wade’s improvements to roads and public transport mean she gets an hour’s extra sleep every morning before going to market to sell her wares.
While observers and analysts have mostly ruled out fears of election violence and rigging, election officials are not taking any chances.
On Saturday, the head of the CENA election commission told a local newspaper that the two candidates had been banned from any premature declaration of the final results to avoid raising tensions in the country.
Much of the discussion in the lead up to the vote has revolved around speculation over the deals which Sall had made with other opposition candidates in order to gain their support.
Yoncouba Seydi, the spokesperson of Idrissa Seck, a frontrunner opposition candidate in the first round, said that Seck had agreed to support Sall as part of an earlier agreement to support the candidate that reached the run off with Wade.
“If Sall wins, Seck will resume his job as part of the opposition,” Seydi said.
The head of the election commission said that results were likely to be released on Thursday, though unofficial results will filter throughout the evening over the airwaves from local radio stations.