Controversial Election Shakes Once-Stable Senegal

Violent protests marked the run-up to Sunday's first round of presidential elections in Senegal. Unofficial vote counts indicate a possible run-off between incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade and a former prime minister. Critics say Wade's third term bid is unconstitutional, and they are concerned about corruption and the high cost of living. Host Michel Martin checks in with NPR's West Africa Correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we continue our series of conversations with writers of memoirs. It's our Black History Month observation. This time, with the question, what is cool? Two of the writers who contributed to a new collection of essays called "Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness" will be with us. Those conversations in a few minutes.

But, first, we want to go to Senegal in West Africa, where presidential elections were held yesterday. The vote came after a month of violent protests. That's unusual for a country with a history of peaceful democracy.

What's behind it? Incumbent president, Abdoulaye Wade, his bid for a third term. Critics say it is unconstitutional. The votes are being tallied, but to get the latest, we wanted to check in with NPR's West Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She joins us from her base in Dakar.

Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings to TELL ME MORE.

MARTIN: What are the unofficial results saying? And we do understand that the votes are still being tallied.

QUIST-ARCTON: Yes. It's very important to stress that, Michel, but we're told that it looks as if it's going to be a runoff and the runoff between the sitting president Abdoulaye Wade and one of his three former prime ministers, who have now become presidential rivals. Macky Sall is the one who is currently in the lead behind Wade and he used to be one of President Wade's proteges. He was his mines minister. After that he became his prime minister, and after that he became the speaker of the lower house until the two of them fell out spectacularly and rather publicly in 2008.

MARTIN: As we mentioned earlier, there have been, you know, weeks of protests in Senegal leading up to the elections, which is unusual. We hear that at least six people were reported killed in street protests. Could you just tell us again what sparked these street protests? What is it that people are so angry about?

QUIST-ARCTON: The fact that President Abdoulaye Wade is seeking reelection for a third term in office. He's been in power now for 12 years and many Senegalese, all his president rivals, his opponents who - candidates in the election, but also many Senegalese who are saying this is unconstitutional. This is illegal.

Now, what President Wade's camp is saying is that the amendment to the constitution came into force after he came to office in the year 2000, so he is within his rights and entitled to seek this third term in office.

MARTIN: Is there anything else, Ofeibea, that people are concerned about, in addition to their sense that Wade is violating - if not the letter of the law, at least the spirit of the law? Are there any other issues that you think are contributing to this unrest?

QUIST-ARCTON: That, Michel, is what has really got to the Senegalese. But there's also the fact that they feel that President Abdoulaye's is trying to impose his son, Karim Wade, who is a mega-minister, a super-minister in his government on the country without him having to be elected. They say that democracy is what Senegal is known for. You are not going to come and impose somebody on us who is not elected because he's your son. That is nepotism and we're not going to put up with it.

So that is another issue that has really enraged the Senegalese and, Michel, I've got to tell you, those street protests were, for Senegal, really violent. You had young people throwing chunks of concrete, rocks at riot police, you know, fully dressed with their helmets and their shields and then lobbing tear gas canisters back into the crowds of mainly young men, but other people, as well.

And that - you know, Senegal doesn't know that sort of violence. It just isn't used to that extent of violence. So I think that really has shocked the Senegalese.

MARTIN: We're talking about presidential elections held in Senegal yesterday. There was violence leading up to the elections, as NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been telling us.

The Senegalese are angry about the president's bid for a third term. Critics say that's in violation of the constitutional amendment which was passed limiting presidents to two terms. So, Ofeibea, before we let you go, you mentioned that this whole issue around the constitutionality of this bid has eclipsed the other issues.

But in the time we have left, could you tell us what some of the other issues are that the candidates campaigned upon?

QUIST-ARCTON: Let me first tell you about the opposition because, of course, Michel, normally, if you want to democratically push a sitting president out in any democracy, the best thing here in Africa is to unite behind one candidate. Then you stand a much better chance.

There were more than a dozen opposition candidates here in Senegal, so a lot of Senegalese are saying that the opposition is also to blame because if it had backed just one horse, there would have been a much better chance of pushing President Abdoulaye Wade out the first round. But where they all agree on is this third term issue, that it shouldn't be allowed to happen.

And, as I've said, what Senegalese are perhaps more worried about is the fact that, although they say President Abdoulaye Wade has built roads. That means work on infrastructure projects, which has allowed farmers to bring their produce on good roads to sell in the towns, but you can't eat roads. They feel that the cost of life - the cost of living has just gone up too much and that the president has not addressed that enough.

They also feel that corruption has been allowed to run rampant under President Wade's second term, which started after the elections in 2007. They feel that he hasn't tackled corruption and that his entourage has enriched itself instead of, you know, helping the ordinary Senegalese have a better life.

Wade came to power in 2000 on the wings of the youth and massive popular support. His campaign slogan was Soki, which means change, and the Senegalese say, well, that change has not happened as we would want it. So now you have - at the polling station - at his own polling station yesterday, a lot of young people chanting, Gorgui na dem, Gorqui na dem, which means old man. That's his nickname. Old man, go away. Old man, get out. It was hugely humiliating for this 85 year old president. He looked around and, first of all, he looked a little flustered and then he looked just angry. He looked unhappy and annoyed that this was happening. But it shows to what extent the Senegalese are saying, enough is enough. And that has been a campaign slogan of one of the youth movements. (foreign language spoken) We've had enough. Abdoulaye Wade has got to go.

MARTIN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's West Africa correspondent. She joined us from her base in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Ofeibea, please keep us posted and thank you so much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Will do. Always a pleasure.

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