DAKAR, Senegal (AP) - Senegal’s President Macky Sall sought re-election Sunday on his record of building roads and creating jobs, while opposition supporters maintained those efforts had not reached many in this West African country where young men often risk their lives to migrate to Europe.
This year’s vote also has been marked by allegations that the presidency had effectively blocked two prominent opposition politicians from taking part: Dakar’s former mayor and the son of the president Sall ousted from office in 2012.
Sall, 57, who cast his ballot in his hometown of Fatick, was hoping to win a second term outright Sunday without heading to a runoff vote. Opposition voters were divided between four candidates including Idrissa Seck, a former prime minister who has run for the presidency twice before.
“I hope that after this election whomever is chosen will be the president of all Senegalese,” Sall said at his polling station. “I hope that will be me.”
Sall has dubbed himself “the builder of modern Senegal,” and billboards lining Dakar’s highways tout the 221 kilometers (137 miles) of new roads and a high speed train in the works that will link the capital to its brand new international airport.
The West African country’s annual GDP growth was 7.2 percent in 2017, and Sall says some 491,000 jobs were created during his first term. He is pledging to add 1 million more if re-elected.
In Dakar’s Guediawaye neighborhood, voters made their way across a sand courtyard to cast ballots at the Kawsara Fall school just before 8 a.m., many clutching prayer beads and plastic cups of coffee.
Mamadou Tall, 45, said that he was backing Seck, an opposition candidate, because the president’s big projects had yet to improve the lives of many Senegalese.
“Around here there are many young men taking the boats to Europe. Unemployment is a real problem,” said Tall, who wore a long flowing white embroidered robe known as a boubou. “In many families there is one person working and he’s supporting 12 to 15 relatives.”
While the president has touted the city’s new airport, Tall pointed out that the project began under his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, and said it really only benefits the well-off.
“Most people here in this neighborhood will never get on a plane,” he said.
Others, though, pointed to tangible benefits over the last seven years that they attributed to Sall’s leadership.
Demba Diagne, 25, says life has gotten better especially in Senegal’s rural areas even if there is more work to be done.
“My friend had to go on a horse-drawn cart for 7 kilometers (4 miles) while she was in labor to get to a hospital,” he recounted. “Under Macky, there are ambulances now.”
Voters who criticize Sall’s efforts need to be more patient, he insisted.
“What can you do in only seven years? To finish a house, it takes longer than six months,” said Diagne. “To change a country, you have to leave him time to do good work.”
Sall became president in 2012 after campaigning on a message of change and then beating longtime former President Abdoulaye Wade. A constitutional referendum since then has shortened the presidential term from seven years to five. Sall weathered some criticism after he still finished out his seven-year mandate following that law change.
Senegal has long been a democratic example in West Africa where coups and clinging to power used to be all too common in neighboring countries. European Union election observers reported no major irregularities by mid-day Sunday.
“The polls opened in a calm environment without violence or significant incidents noted at this hour by our observers,” the EU mission said.
Absent from Sunday’s ballot were two prominent opposition figures who had sought to run but were blocked from doing so after both men were convicted of corruption charges in separate and unrelated trials. Supporters for both men maintain those charges were politically motivated and part of an effort to sideline their candidacies.
Former Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall is currently serving a five-year sentence on charges of misusing public funds. Karim Wade, son of the former president, has been in self-imposed exile in Qatar since he was released from prison in 2016 following a pardon after serving time on corruption charges.
Supporters of Khalifa Sall, who is no relation to the president, have mostly rallied behind Seck. On Sunday, though, there was still a sense of injustice among the former mayor’s ardent supporters.
“He’s a thief, Macky Sall,” said Karim Ba, 37. “There’s nothing fair about this election. There should be seven candidates on the ballot - not five.”
Associated Press writers Amelia Nierenberg and Babacar Dione contributed to this report.
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