Senegal backs down on vote rule change

2011-06-23 18:17

Dakar - Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade has withdrawn a proposed change to the electoral law, the government said, after the bill sparked clashes between riot police and protesters in the heart of the capital.

Wade's rivals had said the change would virtually guarantee his re-election against a fragmented opposition in a February presidential poll, and had threatened a popular uprising in the normally quiet West African state.

Despite the concession, protesters and members of the security forces, using tear gas and water cannons, fought cat and mouse battles in the streets around the presidency and parliament.

Rubbish and several vehicles burned in the streets.

Government spokesperson Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye said that the president had "listened to the Senegalese people, development partners and religious leaders" and decided to keep the present electoral system where a candidate needs more than 50% of the vote to win in the first round.

The proposal had been to drop that figure to 25%.

Wade is also seeking to create the position of vice president, however - a proposal that remains in the bill. His rivals say the role is being proposed so he can pass on power to his son Karim, already a "super minister" in charge of a quarter of the nation's budget.

"It is a first step but I am waiting to see the final outcome of the text. We will maintain the mobilisation," leading opposition leader Macky Sall told Reuters.

Shops were shuttered as Senegalese riot police earlier fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon in clashes with stone-throwing anti-government demonstrators.

Thousands of students and other protesters gathered outside the national assembly building, where lawmakers were due to vote on the bill. There were reports of clashes elsewhere in Dakar.

"Listen to us, we are the voice of the people!" one protester shouted at a line of policemen in riot gear. Others, some wearing bandanas to protect themselves from the teargas, shouted "Liberate Senegal".

Reuters witnesses saw several cars burning. There were also sporadic clashes between the anti-Wade protesters and a small group of his supporters.

Senegal has long been seen as a island of stability in West Africa and has had numerous peaceful elections over the past 50 years since independence from France.

But there are increasing concerns over the concentration of power around Wade.

The EU, a top Senegalese donor, had warned on Wednesday that the election rule changes risked undermining the credibility of the election and needed wider debate.