Protesters defied a government ban Wednesday and made their way to a square only blocks from the presidential palace, the closest that the opposition movement has come to the seat of power in two weeks of demonstrations ahead of next week's election.
Senegalese police wearing helmets and fiberglass shields fired volleys of tear gas. The demonstrators dispersed, running into shops and across the dry lawn of the Place de l'Independance.
The country's opposition had vowed to march on the palace in protest over 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade's bid for a third term in the Feb. 26 ballot. Besides his age, many are angered by what they see as a violation of the constitution, because the electoral code was revised after Wade came to office to impose a two-term maximum.
A 49-year-old woman in a violet robe and matching head scarf fainted from the tear gas. The employees of a travel agency on the square helped her inside, then pulled down the security gate to watch as police chased protesters.
"I voted for Wade in 2000. I voted for him in 2007. I even came out of my house to run after his caravan," said the woman, who asked not to be named because she works for the government and fears for her job. "But I've had enough. He's too old to govern. Like all old men he is becoming senile."
Thirteen opposition candidates are running against Wade in the election. In his 12 years in office, Wade's government undertook the biggest building boom in the country's history, erecting bridges, roads, freeways and a $27 million monument that was supposed to be taller than the Statue of Liberty. His administration's many achievements, however, have been overshadowed by mounting corruption.
"It's the way in which he plundered the country that bothers me the most," said 38-year-old Salmone Faye. "We know his ministers. We knew where they lived before they assumed power. Some of them couldn't even afford the 75 francs ($0.17) to take the bus into town. Now they own entire buildings."
In a six-page declaration sent to reporters late Wednesday, Wade said that he had been endorsed by 80 political parties and 875 committees of citizens. He also outlined his government's successes including quadrupling the nation's budget, building 692 new schools and increasing the number of public hospitals from 17 to 35 and the number of trained doctors from 350 to 1016.
Wade's support has visibly diminished compared to 2007, when thousands of people used to attend his rallies, and 2000, when tens of thousands flooded the streets.
However, the country's opposition has not succeeded in mobilizing huge numbers of people. With the exception of a major anti-government demonstration in June, and the ones immediately following a January court ruling which gave Wade the right to run for a third term, the crowds at opposition protests have rarely been greater than a few thousand people.
Interior Minister Ousmane Ngom said in a statement that Wednesday's demonstration was banned due to the "real threat to public order." Four people have been killed in protests since Jan. 27, when the country's highest court ruled that Wade could run again.
As protesters gathered Wednesday, columns of riot police guarded the road leading to the neoclassical presidential palace, where guardians in red uniforms stood frozen in place in front of the tall gate.
"Today is the first day of a dictatorship in Senegal," said former prime minister Idrissa Seck, who is now running against Wade and whose convoy was blocked by police before he could reach the Place de l'Independance. "Those who are opposed to Wade's regime are not even allowed to protest in the manner that they choose."
Associated Press Writer Sadibou Marone and Thomas Faye contributed to this report.
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