Senegal's president booed in his home precinct

Associated Press
Voters collect ballot papers representing the 14 presidential candidates as they prepare to cast their votes for president at a polling station in the Cambarene neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012. After weeks of riots, Senegalese voters began casting their ballots Sunday in an election that threatens the country's image as one of the oldest and most robust democracies in Africa. This normally unflappable nation on the continent's western coast has been rocked by back-to-back protests following the decision of its 85-year-old leader Abdoulaye Wade to seek a third term. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
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DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Crowds have loudly booed Senegal's 85-year-old president as he went to vote in his home precinct.

President Abdoulaye Wade has angered many Senegalese by insisting on running for a third term in Sunday's election.

As he entered an elementary school to vote, an agitated crowd screamed: "Get out old man!"

Wade was whisked away by security. Later a young voter who said he planned to vote for Wade was encircled by a screaming mob that threatened to beat him.

Wade is running for re-election even though he revised the constitution to impose a two-term maximum. Tension is running high, because the opposition has vowed to render the country ungovernable if he wins Sunday's poll.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — After weeks of riots, voters began casting their ballots Sunday in an election that threatens Senegal's reputation as one of oldest and most robust democracies in Africa.

This normally unflappable republic on the continent's western coast has been rocked by back-to-back protests following the decision of its 85-year-old leader to seek a third term. In doing so, President Abdoulaye Wade is violating the term limits he himself introduced into the constitution.

The deadly riots began last month when the country's highest court ruled that these restrictions should not apply to Wade since he was elected under an earlier constitution that didn't include term limits. The country's increasingly bold opposition has vowed to render the country ungovernable should he win.

Moussa Signate, a security guard, sat against the cement wall of an elementary school that had been transformed into a polling station on a downtown boulevard, watching others line up to vote. Lines snaked outside the doors of the classrooms, but Signate said he was so discouraged that he was considering not voting at all.

"I'm thinking about the future of my country," said the 47-year-old. "People have had enough. If you earn, like me, 80,000 francs ($160) a month, and a bag of rice costs 25,000 ($50), how are you supposed to live? We're a peaceful people, but you can't push us and expect nothing. If Wade wins, it will be chaos."

Voting throughout the capital got off to an orderly start with no immediate reports of unrest. Thijs Berman, head of the European Union observation mission, said that turnout appeared to be high — an encouraging sign.

Still many people in this nation that is more than 90 percent Muslim fingered prayer beads as they waited their turn. Others had their eyes closed in prayer. One man stood in the queue, mouthing verses from an open Quran.

"I am praying for peace in my country," said 63-year-old Assane Gningue.

In a volatile part of the world, Senegal has long been seen as the exception. Its neighbor to the north, Mauritania, held its first democratic election in 2007, only for the president to be overthrown in a coup a year later.

To the south, Guinea-Bissau's president was assassinated two years ago. And further south in Ivory Coast, mass graves are still being unearthed containing the victims of last year's postelection violence.

"For many years we all wrote and spoke about Senegal as being different," said Africa expert Chris Fomunyoh at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Washington. "Senegal has been viewed as the anchor in the sub-region. And today, the metal on that anchor is melting before our very eyes."

First elected 12 years ago, Wade was once hailed as a bright hope for Africa. He spent 25 years as the opposition leader of this nation of over 12 million, fighting the excesses of the former socialist regime which ruled Senegal from 1960 until 2000 when he was first elected.

Growing unrest is being fueled by a sense that the country's institutions are being violated, starting with the constitution. The anger is combined with the fact that one in two people in Senegal still live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

"It's a situation that we've never experienced before. We've always voted in an atmosphere of calm. And now? Everyone is predicting trouble," said 55-year-old homemaker Marie Diop, as she waited her turn to vote in a neatly-pressed white headdress and robe in the style of a Senegalese grand dame.

Worrying for many analysts is the lack of confidence in the very institutions that have long been held up as exemplary in Senegal, starting with the constitutional court that is the final arbiter of the election.

In January, the court's chief justice saw his salary increased to $10,000 per month, according to the court's spokesman, a raise that was interpretted by many as Wade's attempt to buy off the legal body in charge of ratifying the election.

Still the ruling party remains popular in many corners of the country, and despite mounting criticism the government has many accomplishments.

Nearly every economic indicator in the country has improved since he took office 12 years ago, from literacy which grew from 39 to 50 percent, to the average life span which increased from 56 to 59 years, according to World Bank data.

Those voting for the president cite examples of how his reforms have touched their own lives — like 63-year-old Habib Sane, who has been the official florist for Senegal's last three presidents.

"I needed to get dialysis. Before it was 50,000 ($100) per session. Now it's 10,000 ($20). I would have died if it cost what it cost before, because I don't have that kind of money," said Sane, whose monthly salary is around $320. "I've worked for all three presidents, and I can tell you that there have been real changes."

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Associated Press writers Thomas Faye and Sadibou Marone contributed to this report.

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