THIES: A woman gets ready to cast her ballot for Senegal's presidential elections at a polling station. - AFP

DAKAR: Senegal
went to the polls yesterday in an election that incumbent President Macky Sall
is tipped to win after his main challengers were banned from running. His two
biggest rivals in the first-round vote in the West African nation -- popular
former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, the son of the previous
president -- were disqualified after corruption convictions in trials
questioned by rights groups.

People queued in
large numbers as the polling station opened at Fatick in the centre of the
country, where Sall, 56, cast his ballot, as well as at Thies in the west, AFP
reporters said. But the start of voting was delayed at Grand-Yoff, the
stronghold of Khalifa Sall. "I want to get home as soon as possible, I'm
frightened there will be violence on election day," said 25-year-old voter
Fatoumata Sall. "I hope this election goes off peacefully and that
tomorrow everyone will be going about their business -- that will mean a
peaceful vote," said accountant Lamine Diatta after he cast his ballot in

President Sall, a
former geologist who first took the presidency in 2012 after beating his former
political mentor Wade, campaigned for a second term pitching his "Emerging
Senegal" infrastructure project to boost economic growth. "Victory in
the first round is indisputable," Sall told a recent Dakar campaign rally,
seeking to emulate all three of his predecessors by landing a second term --
Abdoulaye Wade needed just one round in 2007 to secure his second term.

Often held up as
a model of stability in Africa, Senegal has enjoyed strong growth. The
Muslim-majority country has largely escaped the jihadist attacks that
destabilized neighbors such as Mali. Sall made infrastructure a priority, including
a new airport, motorways and a rail link. But basic services, healthcare and
education often remain inadequate, sometimes triggering strikes and protests.

Sall faces
competition from four lesser-known rivals who campaigned hard against his plans
for a second phase of his project, which critics see as a waste of taxpayers'
money and a potential debt burden. His rivals are former prime minister Idrissa
Seck, Issa Sall of the Unity and Assembly Party (PUR), former justice and
foreign minister Madicke Niang and tax inspector-turned MP Ousman Sonko.

The five-horse
race leaves voters with a limited choice compared to 2012 when 14 candidates
vied for the top post, and 2007 when 15 battled it out for the presidency.
Preliminary results were expected soon after polling closes at 1800 GMT on
Sunday, but will only become official a day or two later. Some 6.7 million in a
population of around 16 million are registered to vote in a country which
gained independence from France in 1960.

 'Lack of independence'

A candidate must
get more than 50 percent to prevent a second-round runoff. If no one wins more
than half the ballots, a second vote is provisionally scheduled for March 24.
The exact timing will be determined by how long it takes to officially proclaim
the first-round results, and whether there is a challenge.

A new system
approved by parliament last year despite opposition party challenges requires
candidates to demonstrate they have the support of a minimum number of citizens
and regions. Once the new regulations were applied, only seven candidates made
the cut, two of whom were then disqualified. Both Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade
have claimed their criminal convictions were engineered to rule them out of the

Supporters of the
convicted men staged demonstrations, while rights group Amnesty International
spotlighted "unfair trials" in Senegal, and a "lack of
independence" by the judiciary in Khalifa Sall's case. Senegal has known
two peaceful power transfers in 2000 and 2012, and no coups. But election
campaigns are often marred by charges of corruption, disinformation and
sometimes violence.

Recent clashes
between supporters of rival parties left two dead at Tambacounda, 420
kilometers east of the capital. Authorities also reinforced security and
legislation, sometimes at the cost of freedom, according to rights groups.
Officials said 8,000 police were on duty in urban areas alongside an
undetermined number of civilian security staff. The interior ministry said some
5,000 observers -- including 900 from abroad -- were monitoring proceedings.
Opposition rallies have recently been banned and pre-trial detention for people
suspected of "terrorism" extended from 48 hours to 12 days. - AFP