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At 85, Senegal's Defiant President Seeks A New Term

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The Senegalese are known for campaigning loudly, musically and enthusiastically, yet the country's reputation for democracy and stability in turbulent West Africa has taken a knock as it prepares for elections on Feb. 26.

When Senegal's top court gave its blessing last month to President Abdoulaye Wade's third-term ambitions, his opponents angrily took to the streets to demonstrate their disapproval.

Senegal was tense as police clashed with protesters demanding that the president withdraw his candidacy.

Opposition presidential candidate Moustapha Niasse, Wade's onetime prime minister, used strong language to describe Senegal's octogenarian leader during a recent protest march.

"Let me tell you that Abdoulaye Wade is a political delinquent," Niasse said. "His electoral campaign is illegal. We are the ones who are campaigning legally."

Senegal's opposition maintains the president's re-election bid violates both the spirit and the letter of the constitution, which Wade himself had amended to introduce a two-term limit.

The presidential camp, backed by the Constitutional Council, argues that the change came into force after Wade took office 12 years ago, so the term limit does not apply.

The Constitutional Council also threw out the candidacy of Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, who announced his presidential bid last month. The court said he did not have the required number of signatures.

Although the opposition is presenting a united front against Wade, it has failed to back a single candidate, with about a dozen contenders challenging the president.

Lewis Lukens, the U.S. ambassador to Senegal, is quoted by the Senegalese media as calling Wade's candidacy "unfortunate" in an interview, published on Lukens said it was regrettable that "President Wade has chosen to compromise the elections and threaten the security of his country by his insistence on running for a third term."

In a spirited response to U.S. criticism, President Wade as good as told the U.S. to "mind your own business."

"You should know that the Senegalese people [are] a free people. [They] will decide if I have two mandates or three mandates or four mandates or five mandates," Wade told NPR. "This must be a question for the Senegalese people and not for foreigners from France or the United States."

A Confident President

Last week, President Wade and the first lady, Viviane, swept out of the presidential palace gates in a convoy, including loudspeakers blaring his campaign songs, and with a posse of Senegalese and international journalists in tow. His entourage billed the drive around Dakar as an impromptu tour, but it was clearly well organized.

Hundreds of supporters poured onto the streets, dancing and singing, to cheer and shake hands with the presidential couple. The president and his wife stood up in the car to dispense regal hand waves. But you can pick out the Senegalese who won't be voting for the president. Unsmiling, some scowled at the noisy spectacle, their arms held firmly across their chests.

Those who covered Wade's victorious campaign and election in 2000 say that, back then, he was able to mobilize tens of thousands of supporters who ran after his convoy, cheering and chanting "SOPI" — change — his winning slogan.

Analysts say the crowds this time round are far short of what people witnessed at the height of Wade's popularity more than a decade ago.

"People simply want to see something different. The problem with Wade is that now has come the time for him to exit gracefully and then hand over to a younger generation," says journalist Ousmane Diallo. "He still wants to hang onto power."

Diallo has been reporting on Senegalese presidential politics for the past quarter-century, and he says Wade is very clever where politics is concerned.

"But he should understand that this is Senegal, so if he keeps on pushing [and] pushing it ... honestly we never know what will happen in this country, which has never known any coup d'etat since independence from France in 1960," he says.

But Abdoulaye Wade is confident, and he says he'll be re-elected in the first round of the presidential vote. He says he may be nicknamed Gorgui, which means Old Man in Wolof, but he is no where near ready for retirement.

Wade told journalists who accompanied him on the tour around Dakar that he sees the response of his supporters as an affirmation of his continuing popularity.

"You came out with me, what is your impression?" Wade asked on his return to the presidential palace. "As you saw, it was an improvised visit, but I think it's clear that this was a plebiscite from the street," he said. "The people came out and greeted me spontaneously. This shows the people of Senegal are with me."

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