Observers Fear Violence-Marred Election In Senegal

With just two days left before Senegal's presidential election, mediation efforts are underway to try to calm a political standoff in the West African nation that has led to violent protests. There is resistance the the 85-year-old incumbent seeking a third term.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go next to West Africa, to Senegal where presidential campaigning ends tonight. The sitting president's desire for a third term led to violent protests. Mediation efforts are underway, seeking a peaceful vote on Sunday. But the controversy overshadows all other issues.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has more.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Supporters chant Gorgui, Old Man, the name they call 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade, who's been busy campaigning all over Senegal. He's drawing smaller crowds than during the 2007 elections, but clearly he still has admirers, like Djiby Diao.

DJIBY DIAO: Yeah. Abdoulaye Wade have started many things. Abdoulaye Wade is the best presidential candidate this country ever seen.

QUIST-ARCTON: Many other Senegalese say what they want from their new president is continued peace, jobs, a stable power supply and prices they can afford, to counter the high cost of living. Wade, in power for the past 12 years, says it's up to the voters to decide whether he stays on.

PRESIDENT ABDOULAYE WADE: We should leave the Senegalese people to appreciate if I am in position, if I am in good health, you know, to do two mandate or three mandate or four mandate, I don't know.

QUIST-ARCTON: During the campaign, his presidential rivals have focused almost exclusively on one point — Wade's departure. The opposition challengers, including Wade's former Harvard-trained foreign minister, Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, accuse him of using a constitutional loophole for an illegal third term bid.

CHEIKH TIDIANE GADIO: We refuse to consider him a legitimate candidate, because he's acting like many other African head of state. When the constitution does not fit their interests, then they modify the constitution. They bluntly violate the constitution. But we don't recognize his electoral coup d'etat. So the fight will go on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTERING)

QUIST-ARCTON: President Wade's ambitions for re-election have sparked some deadly clashes. Opposition demonstrators have hurled rocks at teargas-toting riot police, in unprecedented protests in normally stable and peaceful Senegal.

A worried African Union, and the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, have jointly dispatched former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, to Senegal to observe the vote and try to calm the waters. Obasanjo himself once entertained highly-unpopular third term dreams and made these telling remarks about Africa's sit-tight presidents a few weeks ago.

OLUSEGUN OBASANGO: Today there are probably half a dozen who have been in power for more than a decade. So I think we should just hope that those who do not want to learn the lesson, time will teach them. I would say to all of them that there is life after the government house. I believe in the good old saying, that one must leave the stage when the ovation is still very high.

QUIST-ARCTON: The U.S. ambassador in Dakar, Lewis Lukens, was sharply critical of President Wade seeking a third term, calling his candidacy unfortunate earlier this month. Lukens said this compromised Sunday's elections and threatened the security of Senegal. Now the American ambassador is calling for a peaceful poll.

AMBASSADOR LEWIS LUKENS: Our message is really to continue to urge all sides - the security forces, the voters, the government - to stay peaceful. I hope we don't see more violence. This is a country which has always had peaceful transitions of power and we urge all sides to stay calm and to exercise restraint.

QUIST-ARCTON: President Wade is urging his supporters to vote massively, so that he sweeps to power in the first round on Sunday, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QUIST-ARCTON: But at opposition campaign rallies, they're playing the rap song "Abdoulaye Don't Force It," which they hope is ringing in the president's ears.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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