Tensions mount in stable Senegal during election showdown

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Peace and democracy, rare treasures in Africa, were tested in runoff elections on Sunday pitting a longtime president accused of corruption against a fiery opposition leader who warns of a revolution.

After 40 years of rule by a party that for the angry poor represents the rich elite, Senegal's reputation as one of the continent's most stable, liberal nations was hanging in the balance.

The vote featured a battle of personalities - a reserved incumbent President Abdou Diouf against vocal opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade - with little emphasis on policy or ideology.

Unlike many African elections, where the ruling party controls campaign funds and sometimes electoral authorities, the outcome of Sunday's contest was uncertain.

Reports of violence, ballot theft and other irregularities around the country marred the vote. Several injuries and dozens of arrests were reported.

On the eve of the showdown, Wade accused Diouf of preparing to fix the elections and repeated warnings of a spontaneous revolution by angry voters if he loses.

"History shows a growing desire among poor voters for change," he said. "Four decades after Diouf's Socialist Party took power in 1960, nearly two-thirds of Senegalese remain illiterate and hospitals and roads are badly neglected."

After voting in the capital, Wade told his supporters not to initiate violence but to fight back if attacked.

He also warned Senegalese to "remain vigilant" for "serious election anomalies".

At a ballot station in Dakar's working class Medina suburb, some opposition supporters said they were prepared to fight if Diouf wins. Preliminary results are not expected until Tuesday or later.

"It will be a bad day if Diouf steals the election. There will be people at the morgue and the hospital," said Matar Sy, an electrician at a French military base near Dakar.

Although turnout figures were unavailable, there appeared to be fewer voters in Dakar than during the February 27 first round. Some voters had been unable to return on time from Muslim festivities held in other parts of the country.

A light turnout in Dakar could hurt Wade's campaign, which draws most of its support from urban areas.

Diouf, 64, whose Socialist Party has ruled Senegal since independence, won 41 percent of the previous round, compared to 31 percent for Wade.

For the runoff, however, Wade has the backing of five of the seven other contenders in the previous round.

The president voted near his palace in downtown Dakar surrounded by armed soldiers and crowds of supporters who cheered and threw rose petals at him.

A few voters booed and shouted "Sopi!" meaning "Change!" in the Wolof language.

Diouf's backers say he should be re-elected because under his leadership Senegal has had a reputation as one of Africa's most stable nations, with a vibrant trading economy despite few natural resources.

Critics accuse Diouf of fostering a corrupt elite and ignoring the country's poor since he became president in 1981. In recent years, unemployment and crime have increased in the capital.

In at least several cases, political differences exploded into violence.

Young Diouf supporters armed with machetes attacked an electoral station in Dakar's Mermosa neighbourhood, private radio station Wal Fadjiri reported. Several of the attackers were arrested.

At least 20 people were arrested during a street fight in Dakar's Derkle II suburb after the son of a Socialist Party official attacked opponents with a machete, witnesses said.

Clashes were also reported in the interior towns of Nioro, about 200 kilometers southeast of Dakar, and Ndande, to the north east of this coastal capital city. Details were unclear although several casualties were reported.

Army units were patrolling the southern Casamance province, where separatist rebels carried out scattered attacks during the first round of voting.

By midafternoon, numerous allegations of theft of thousands of ballots were reported on private radio stations. Several arrests reportedly were made.

"I myself saw envelopes stuffed with Diouf ballots," said Aisatou Diallo, an opposition election observer in Derkle II.

In many parts of the capital, voting went smoothly as Senegalese in brightly-colored "boubous," or formal West African gowns, filed slowly through otherwise empty streets.

Senegal is one of the few countries in Africa to hold regular elections, although the Socialist Party has easily won previous polls. Sunday's runoff is the first time voting has gone to a second round.