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Senegal votes in first round of presidential election

Michele Cattani, AFP | A voter gets ready to cast her ballot for Senegal’s presidential elections at a polling station in Thies Feb. 24, 2019.

Senegal’s polling stations opened early Sunday for the first round of a presidential election that incumbent President Macky Sall is tipped to win amid strong economic growth. However, rights groups accuse him of forcing out any political rivals.

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Sall’s two biggest rivals -- popular former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, the son of the previous president -- were disqualified over corruption convictions in trials questioned by rights groups.

Reporting from a polling station in the heart of the capital, Dakar, FRANCE 24’s Nadia Massih said “the atmosphere here is pretty positive. We got here before polls opened at 8am [local time] and there were already queues at the polling station. People are very keen to cast their ballots today. Voters telling it’s their democratic responsibility to vote in these presidential elections.”

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.

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.

Much of this infrastructure has been underwritten by Chinese investment, which totals over over $1.6 billion, according to China's ambassador to Senegal Zhang Xun.

He 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.

Candidate Sonko seaks break from colonial past

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.

Sonko, 44, has made headlines by proposing to replace the CFA franc with a Senegalese currency.

Senegal, along with several other Francophone countries in West Africa, has used the French franc since the end of the colonial era. The use of the franc has long been controversial and is viewed by many as a leftover from the country’s past when it now wants to look to the future.

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.

Voting began at 8 am (3 am ET) and ends at 6 pm (1 pm ET). 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 people in a population of around 16 million are registered to vote.

'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.

Opposition rallies have recently been banned and pre-trial detention for people suspected of "terrorism" extended from 48 hours to 12 days.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

 

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