(AFP) – Thousands of people celebrated in the streets of Dakar early Monday after Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade admitted defeat in his bid for a third term, scotching fears he would try to hang on to power.
Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade admitted defeat in the presidential election Sunday evening as results gave an overwhelming lead to his rival Macky Sall, state media reported.
The Senegalese Press Agency said Wade “phoned his rival Macky Sall at 2130 GMT (9:00 pm) to congratulate him after the first results showed him to be the winner of a presidential run-off” vote.
Shortly ahead of the unexpected announcement, thousands of people gathered in front of Sall’s party headquarters and spilled into the streets, chanting, dancing and hooting their horns.
After a tumultuous election, many had expected the worst as the octogenarian leader defiantly pushed for a third term in office.
But his defeat — and his promptness in acknowledging it — is likely to win Senegal kudos after fears the election would derail one of Africa’s pioneer democracies.
The post-poll congratulatory phonecall recalls the one made back in 2000. On that occasion, the incumbent Abdou Diouf called Wade to admit defeat in what became a celebrated democratic handover in the west African nation.
“Macky president” “This time we have it” or “We have won”, the supporters outside his party headquarters danced to music blaring from powerful speakers.
Similar scenes played out at Independence Square where, ahead of a first round of voting, riot police had spent weeks defending with tear gas and rubber bullets in a bid to prevent opposition protests there.
On Sunday evening, hundreds of people poured into the square to celebrate.
With no barrier now to the large square in downtown Dakar, people marched around chanting and scores of youths on motorbikes performed daredevil tricks.
It was a stark contrast the protests sparked by 85-year-old Wade’s controversial bid for a third term, which led to nearly daily riots that left six dead before the first-round February 26 election.
Voting on Sunday closed at 6:00 pm (1800 GMT) but initial results published by state media showed Sall beating Wade at least 2:1 in the overwhelming majority of polling stations.
The outgoing president was even roundly beaten in his home constituency.
His defeat is a humiliating blow to a leader who was hugely popular when first elected in 2000 after 25 years as opposition leader. On that occasion, the street celebrations were in his honour.
Sall, 50, was once widely tipped to succeed the veteran leader following a meteoric rise which took him through several ministerial portfolios. But he fell from grace and left the ruling party to strike out on his own.
This is his first election and his strong showing in the first round made him the man to back by an opposition united in its desire to unseat Wade.
“If all goes well, we should be at around 70 percent” of votes cast, said Sall in an interview with AFP this week.
“Wade cannot win,” he added, pointing out that the embattled octogenarian had failed to gain the support of a single one of the 12 presidential candidates eliminated in the first round.
Wade had remained defiant to the last, dismissing as “absurd” the idea of him losing in an interview with local television. That had raised fears that the poll’s outcome would be disputed.
Wade’s defeat and prompt recognition of it, will come as a relief to former colonial power France and the United States, both of whom had urged him not to pursue the controversial third term of office.
In 2007, Wade was re-elected in the first round with 55 percent of the vote.
But his popularity plunged in recent years amid rising food prices, power cuts and the widespread perception that he was trying to line up his son Karim to succeed him.
Wade had served his two terms, a limit that he himself had introduced.
But since that law was not retroactive, later changes to the constitution allowed him to serve two more mandates, he argued.
This argument was upheld by the country’s constitutional council, a decision that sparked angry street protests.
Wade did get credit for oversseing an aggressive infrastructure drive, but his critics said he focused on fanciful legacy projects to the detriment of good governance initiatives.
And as a coup played out in neighbouring Mali last week, European Union election observers urged Senegal to prove its credentials as a strong democracy in a troubled region.
“I hope as a democrat that Senegal will show a strong example in this African region which is so tormented,” said EU mission chief Thijs Berman.
Senegal has been hailed as one of the region’s success stories, being the sole among its mainland neighbours never to have suffered a military coup.