DAKAR (Reuters) - (Recasts with pro-Wade event, details)
A rally in support of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade drew thousands to the capital Dakar on Saturday, hours after a smaller protest by opponents who say his bid for a third term in February’s election is illegal.
Backers of the 85-year-old president’s poll bid put the turnout in the hundreds of thousands for the pro-Wade rally, which comes a month to the day after violent anti-Wade protests rocked this poor but usually peaceful West African state.
Dozens of buses queued to drop off Senegalese from across the country at the event, with many carrying banners reading “Wade for 2012” and “Hope of the Nation”.
Local frustrations have been stoked by power cuts, high living costs and stubbornly low employment rates, but Wade points to achievements in developing infrastructure such as roads and high budget spend on education.
“Our party showed today that it has a level of support unrivalled by any other party in Senegal,” Wade told the crowd outside the headquarters of his ruling PDS.
Ndagua Sylla from the town of Thiaroye near Dakar was among several in the crowd who told Reuters their bus fare had been paid by local officials of Wade’s party and that they had been promised a small handout to cover their expenses for the day.
One of the few countries in the region to have regularly seen power change hands by the ballot box, Senegal has come to be a regional hub for United Nations, non-governmental agencies and some multinationals.
It priced a $500 million bond in May with a yield of 9.125 percent and its telecom operator Sonatel is a hot favourite of many emerging market investors.
The event was the first major rally by Wade’s PDS party since June 23 riots against a proposed law that would have allowed him to claim victory in the February poll with 25 percent of the vote. Wade quickly backed down from the law.
While the anti-Wade protests have been nowhere near the scale of “Arab Spring” uprisings that ousted leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, they have since galvanised a movement whose rallying call is now that Wade should not even stand for the poll.
Wade’s critics say changes to the constitution in 2001 bar him from a third term. His backers argue the changes cannot be applied retroactively to his election in 2000, meaning he still has scope for one more mandate. Jurists have until January to rule on the dispute.
Few analysts believe the row could degenerate into the type of post-election conflict seen earlier this year in nearby Ivory Coast, although Wade in a newspaper interview this week warned of “Ivorian-style” chaos if ever he should quit power.
Earlier, thousands had taken to the streets in a separate part of Dakar to urge Wade to abandon plans for a new term.
“We voted from him in 2000 but we don’t want him any more,” said opposition supporter Fatou Gaye of Wade’s first term, sweating in the midday sun in a colourful red, wax-print dress.
“There is no electricity. The youth don’t have jobs. The country is getting harder every day,” she added.
Reuters reporters estimated the size of the crowd at several thousand, including housewives, professionals, pensioners and many youth complaining of mass unemployment.
Wade’s opponents suspect his plan is to secure re-election and hand over to his merchant banker son Karim, who holds a “super ministry” despite never having won any form of election.
Wade father and son have both firmly denied such a plan.