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Polls close in Senegal's presidential election

From Nick Loomis, For CNN
updated 6:17 PM EST, Sun February 26, 2012
Senegalese voters line up to cast ballots Saunday in Dakar, Senegal.
Senegalese voters line up to cast ballots Saunday in Dakar, Senegal.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: An observer says Sunday turnout seemed low
  • A runoff will be held if a candidate does not win 50% of the vote
  • President Abdoulaye Wade is booed as he casts his ballot in Dakar
  • Violence has erupted since a court allowed Wade to be on the ballot

Dakar, Senegal (CNN) -- Polls closed Sunday in Senegal where citizens voted in an election overshadowed by violence as protesters demand the elderly president refrain from seeking another term.

President Abdoulaye Wade, 85, was booed and jeered when he cast his ballot at a polling station in the middle-class neighborhood of Point E. He did not address the crowd, looked visibly frustrated at one point, and made some sort of gesture to the crowd, which also included some of his supporters.

If a candidate does not win 50% of the vote, a runoff election will be held next month in the West African nation.

"We've had enough of this regime of thieves and assassins. We will defeat them here," said Cheikh Gassama, a voter at the Point E station. As the president arrived, he and other chanted "Na Dem," which means "step down" in Senegal's predominant Wolof language.

Senegal is one of the continent's most stable democracies. Past elections have included a smooth transition of power, a rarity in a region with a history of election chaos, civil wars and coups.

Turnout on Sunday was low, according to Thijs Berman, chief observer of the European Union monitoring mission.

"Early in the morning, you saw long queues of people in front of polling stations but, later in the day, there were much less people and it seems that the turnout is below 50%," he said. "There was high political tension before these elections, so it is surprising that so few people came to vote."

Wade is seeking re-election despite deadly demonstrations after the country's highest court cleared him to seek a third term.

Protests have occurred in Senegal since the Constitutional Council's January 27 ruling.

Opposition demonstrators argue that the court was compromised and the constitution limits presidents to two terms. The incumbent successfully argued that he is exempt because he took office before the term limit was put in place.

The president, who has been in office since 2000, was once hailed as a visionary, but his popularity has plummeted.

"Wade built schools, roads and hospitals," said Ayo Johnson, an analyst on African affairs. "His leadership has now failed. ... There are increasing levels of poverty, inequality, lack of jobs and an increasing numbers of disillusioned youth."

Wade ran against 13 other candidates on Sunday's ballot.

"Senegal is at a crossroad. A people whose patience has run out, a leader who's out of touch, a constitution not reflective of popular sentiments and an opposition that is unable to put aside party differences with a common purpose to defeat Wade," Johnson said.

Protesters calling for his ouster have clashed on the streets, with at least three people killed during demonstrations last weekend, an opposition leader said. At least two others died in previous clashes.

A presidential spokesman has accused opposition candidates and their supporters of fueling "urban guerrilla warfare" leading up to Sunday's vote.

But Amath Dansokho, head of the opposition June 23 Movement, blamed police for the escalating violence, saying they were responsible for some deaths during demonstrations in Dakar and Rufisque this month.

The presidential spokesman denied the police or military were involved in the deaths.

The opposition June 23 Movement, or M23, is named after the date of protests last summer that forced Wade to withdraw a constitutional amendment that would have nearly guaranteed his victory in this month's election.

West Africa has a history of political strife, but Senegal has largely maintained peace and has never experienced a military coup.

CNN's Umaro Djau contributed to this report.

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