Polls close in Senegal election that President Sall is tipped to win

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Senegal's President and candidate for the presidential elections Macky Sall speaks after casting his vote at a polling station in Fatick, Senegal February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

(Reuters) – Senegal voted on Sunday in an election President Macky Sall is expected to win after strong economic growth in his first term, although rights groups criticized him for squeezing out rivals.

Supporters chanted “Ole, Ole,” and flashed “V” for victory signs as Sall cast his vote in his hometown of Fatick.

“The elected president will have to be the president of all Senegal. I hope this president will be me,” he said.

Polling stations in Dakar closed on schedule at 6 p.m (1800 GMT) after a largely incident-free election day.

It was not immediately clear how many of the country’s 6.5 million registered voters turned out. Official results are due on Friday with a run-off for the top two on March 24 if no one secures a majority.

Senegal’s small fish-exporting economy expanded more than 6 percent last year, one of the highest rates in Africa, driven by an ambitious reform and development plan that included the construction of a new railway.

The 57-year-old president promised to deliver universal healthcare and better access to education.

After voting in Fatick, pensioner Adama Sakho, 81, said he believed Sall would win in the first round, praising his social spending policies.

“I’m retired, and now in one month I receive the same amount of money I used to make in three months,” he said. “He has the hand of God. Everything he touches gets realized. And he brings luck, because it’s during his reign that we found oil and gas.”

There are hopes of an oil and gas boom in Senegal as energy majors develop previously untapped fields off its Atlantic coast.

FIVE CANDIDATES

Opinion polls are banned in the run-up to the vote, but a survey by a Senegalese data company in November gave Sall 45 percent support. Of his four rivals now lined up in the smallest field of candidates since 1988, none had more than 16 percent.

Despite Sall’s popularity, some Senegalese question whether a high-speed train, new motorways and a swanky conference center will benefit average citizens in the former French colony of 15 million people where the average income is less than $200 a month.

Many people do not have reliable water or power supplies.

University professor Bakary Manga, 43, said he would vote for opposition candidate Ousmane Sonko as he was disappointed in Sall’s first term.

“It was a big nonsense with him. The cost of his projects is excessive, we can do much better with much less,” he said as he queued at a polling station in Dakar.

Rights groups have criticized the exclusion of two popular candidates.

Former mayor of Dakar, Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, son of former President Abdoulaye Wade who was in power from 2000 to 2012, were barred from running due to corruption convictions.

The former president said the vote was being rigged and told supporters of his son to boycott the poll.

The government has dismissed the criticism, promising a free and fair vote.

The West African nation has long been viewed as the region’s most stable democracy, with peaceful transitions of power since independence in 1960.

The other candidates include Sonko, a former tax inspector popular among the youth, and third-time contender and former prime minister Idrissa Seck.

Sonko told supporters at his final rally on Thursday he would congratulate Sall if the vote was fair. “But if he steals the victory, I ask the youth to walk to the presidential palace and chase him out,” he said.

At least one person was killed this month in clashes between Sall’s backers and his opponents in the southeastern city of Tambacounda, but campaigning has been largely peaceful.