Senegal's Wade Leads in Bid to Hold Presidency

Millions of voters went to the polls in Senegal Sunday to pick a president, and early returns put incumbent Abdoulaye Wade in the lead. There were long lines at the polling stations.

"I am very optimistic, because there is a very big mobilization for the vote," Wade said after casting his own vote. Supporters of the president, who is now in his 80s, hardly allowed him to speak without erupting into cheers.

"I'm going to win, I'm going to win — and I'm going to win in the first round," Wade insisted.

Senegalese opposition challengers disagreed, saying that with 15 candidates in the race, no one could win the first round outright, and a runoff will have to follow.

Meanwhile, Senegalese voters are glued to their radios, listening to results from around the country and abroad.

They are eager to find out who will win, and what his priorities will be. In a turbulent region, prone to military coups and civil wars, Senegal has remained a relative oasis of stability in West Africa. And for voter Mary Diop, that's the key.

"What I want for Senegal is peace, peace, peace," she said in French. "Peace is essential, because without peace you cannot build a country."

El Mamadou Mactar Thiam said he was voting for change, because he felt the president had not fulfilled his pledges to young people. And like many young voters, he talked about the harrowing images of thousands of young Senegalese, crammed into wooden fishing boats, leaving the country in search of jobs in Europe. Thousands are believed to have drowned in the Atlantic Ocean, making the dangerous 600-mile crossing on the open seas, trying to reach the Spanish Canary Islands.

"They have lost their hope, because this country is quite difficult," he said. "They want to help their parents, but they have no money. Moreover, they think if they go there, they will have money to help their parents. That's why they take pirogue (boats) to go abroad. On the one hand, if they go there — if they don't die on the way — it's a good thing. But if they die, it's bad."

Many Senegalese complain that when they voted for Wade in 2000 he promised progress and jobs. Now they point to crippling unemployment, continuing poverty, power cuts and water shortages.

Others say the president can't control international economic forces. Mame Seye Soumare, 25, who voted for Wade, said you can't blame the president because he doesn't dictate market prices for oil and other commodities.

Wade hopes millions of voters share her perspective.

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