Senegal's ruling party plans to change the constitution to lower the percentage of votes a candidate needs to win an election and to create the office of vice president, the government spokesman said Tuesday.
The changes are being introduced just eight months ahead of the 2012 national election, prompting opposition leaders to deride the proposal as a "constitutional coup." They said the amendment would favor incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade and his unpopular son.
Spokesman Moustapha Guirassy told reporters late Tuesday that the constitutional modification would reinforce Senegal's democracy by ensuring that there is no power vacuum in the event of the president's death. At 85, Wade is Africa's second oldest head of state and his bid for an extraconstitutional third term has been heavily contested.
He has given an increasing share of power to his eldest child, Karim Wade, and critics claim the creation of the VP post would be a way to ensure his succession. Currently, if Wade were to die in office, the head of the National Assembly would become president before new elections are held.
Such a constitutional change would require a majority vote in the National Assembly, but Wade's party has a majority there.
Wade has denied he is attempting to install his son, a claim reiterated by Guirassy, who is also Senegal's minister of communication. "The president has said he has never considered a possible succession by (his son)," said Guirassy. "But I think this declaration by the president will never be enough to reassure certain people in Senegalese society."
In addition, the new law would allow Wade to be re-elected with just 25 percent of Senegal's approximately 5 million registered voters. This is significantly lower than the more than 50 percent of votes cast that the constitution currently requires to avoid a runoff.
In the 2007 election, Wade won a second term with around 1.9 million votes. He is expected to receive less in the 2012 contest due to growing discontent over frequent power cuts, high unemployment and the spiraling cost of living in Senegal. The new rule would mean Wade could win with just 1.2 million votes, if the number of registered voters stays the same.
Earlier Tuesday, a deputy in the National Assembly chained himself to the gate outside parliament to protest the proposed electoral reform.
Police on Monday broke up a protest over the proposed change and arrested a ranking member of the opposition.
"This initiative of Wade's is a new way to deform the constitution of our country," opposition leader Moustapha Niasse said earlier in the week. "This proposal conceals a process of succession, since what Wade wants is to create a mechanism that will allow him to stay in power by designating a successor."
Associated Press Writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report.