DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Voters booed Senegal's president as he went to cast his ballot in elections Sunday, the latest sign of how his decision to seek a third term in office has caused his popularity to plummet and divided a country long considered a model of tolerance.
The unrest has threatened the reputation of this normally unflappable republic on Africa's western coast, which has been held up as one of the continent's most mature democracies.
In choosing to run again, the 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade is contradicting the term limits he himself introduced into the constitution. He argues that those restrictions should not apply to him since he was elected before they went into effect, and the deadly riots that have rocked the country began last month when the nation's highest court agreed with him.
He has predicted that he will win with a crushing majority, but the scene inside the polling station where he has voted for decades shocked even longtime observers of this country, where respect for the elderly is deeply ingrained. Wade was jeered and insulted when he arrived to vote, and the normally loquacious leader didn't give his customary post-vote press conference, as his bodyguards whisked him back into his motorcade.
"I feel sad because our democracy doesn't deserve this," said the president's daughter Syndiely Wade, who stayed back in the polling station in the neighborhood of Point E to talk to reporters. "My father doesn't deserve this."
The protests that began last month following the court's ruling are uncharacteristic for Senegal, and six people have been killed in the violence. The country's opposition has vowed to render the country ungovernable should he win.
Moussa Signate, a security guard, sat against the cement wall of an elementary school that was transformed into a polling station downtown, watching others line up to vote. Lines snaked outside the doors of the classrooms, but Signate said he was so discouraged that he was considering not voting at all.
"I'm thinking about the future of my country," said the 47-year-old. "We're a peaceful people, but you can't push us and expect nothing. If Wade wins, it will be chaos."
Voting throughout the capital got off to an orderly start, and turnout appeared high, said Thijs Berman, head of the European Union observation mission. The main exception was the troubled province of Casamance, where a low-level rebellion has simmered for years and where rebels attacked two vehicles carrying voting material, according to regional military spokesman Saliou Ngom.
In a volatile part of the world, Senegal has long been seen as the exception.
Mauritania located to the north held its first democratic election in 2007, only for the president to be overthrown in a coup a year later. To the south, Guinea-Bissau's president was assassinated two years ago. And further south in Ivory Coast, mass graves are still being unearthed containing the victims of last year's postelection violence.
"For many years we all wrote and spoke about Senegal as being different," said Africa expert Chris Fomunyoh at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Washington. "Senegal has been viewed as the anchor in the sub-region. And today, the metal on that anchor is melting before our very eyes."
Wade was once hailed as a hope for Africa. He spent 25 years as the opposition leader of this nation of more than 12 million, fighting the excesses of the former socialist regime which ruled Senegal from 1960 until 2000 when he was first elected.
Growing unrest is being fueled by a sense that the country's institutions are being violated, starting with the constitution. The anger is combined with the fact that one in two people in Senegal still live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Worrying for many analysts is the lack of confidence in the very electoral process that has long been held up in Senegal. Just days before the constitutional court was due to vote last month on whether Wade was eligible to run again, the judges received new, government-issued luxury cars, according to the court's spokesman.
And the chief justice saw his salary jump to $10,000 per month in a nation where most people earn $90. The fear is that even if Wade were to win legally, the confidence in these institutions has been so eroded that people will not accept his victory as legitimate.
"I wish to tell Wade that everyone is watching Senegal. He needs to make sure that the vote is extremely transparent," said international pop star Youssou Ndour, who had planned to run against Wade but was disqualified on a technicality by the constitutional court. "We will not accept for someone to twist our ballot."
Wade has dismissed these fears, and in an interview published Sunday in the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche he said he doesn't fear rioting because "a revolt by Senegalese against me is unthinkable."
The results issued late Sunday from the polling station where Wade and his family have voted for decades made clear, however, that the aging leader is facing the biggest challenge of his career.
Of the 484 votes case at Bureau No. 2 in the Point E neighborhood, Wade received only 102 — not even 22 percent. Wade, who faces 13 challengers, needs at least 50 percent of the overall vote to avoid a runoff. In 2007, he won on the race's first round with nearly 56 percent.
Still, the ruling party remains popular in many corners of the country, and despite mounting criticism the government is credited with undertaking the biggest building boom in Senegal's history.
Nearly every economic indicator in the country has improved since Wade took office 12 years ago, from literacy which grew from 39 to 50 percent, to the average life span which increased from 56 to 59 years, according to World Bank data.
Those voting for the president cite examples of how his reforms have touched their own lives — like 63-year-old Habib Sane, who has been the official florist for Senegal's last three presidents.
"I needed to get dialysis. Before it was 50,000 ($100) per session. Now it's 10,000 ($20). I would have died if it cost what it cost before, because I don't have that kind of money," said Sane, whose monthly salary is around $320. "I've worked for all three presidents, and I can tell you that there have been real changes."
Associated Press writers Thomas Faye and Sadibou Marone in Dakar, Senegal, and Mamadou Diallo in Ziguinchor, Senegal, contributed to this report.