Police used tear gas Wednesday to disperse citizens demonstrating against a proposed change to Senegal's electoral law that would make it easier for the country's aging president to be re-elected and to pass on power to his unpopular son.
Private radio station Radio Futurs Media, or RFM, said the protesters were beaten back in Place de l'Independance, the largest square in the capital's downtown district, in the suburb of Pikine, and in the town of Kaolack in the country's interior.
Anger is building in this normally stable country on Africa's western coast because the proposed constitutional amendments are seen as designed to make it easier for 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade to be re-elected by lowering the percentage of votes he needs to receive to win another term. It also creates the new position of vice president which would make it possible for him to choose his eldest child, Karim Wade, as his running mate.
The National Assembly is scheduled to vote Thursday on the proposed constitutional changes and it's believed that the law will pass because a majority of parliamentarians are from Wade's party. Callers on evening radio shows said protesters planned to surround the homes of pro-Wade deputies early Thursday morning, to prevent them from reaching the parliament hall to vote.
Senegal's government is modeled on that of its former colonizer, France, with a president and a prime minister, but no vice president. Opposition leaders charge that the VP position is only being created so that Wade can inject his son into politics. The younger Wade is frequently pilloried in opposition papers and his political coalition was trounced in recent municipal elections. Wade has given an increasing share of power to his son, including several ministerial posts.
The opposition charges that Wade plans to choose his son as his running mate in the 2012 election in order to create a mechanism for his succession if he dies in office. If Wade wins a third term, he would be in office into his 90s.
The new law also lowers the percentage of votes a winning ticket is required to get to avoid a runoff in an election.
A candidate currently needs more than 50 percent of votes cast to avoid a second round. The change would lower that to 25 percent of registered voters, which would favor Wade because the country's opposition is not united and will likely field many candidates who will split the vote.
Analysts believe that if Wade is forced to face a runoff, pitting him against a single opposition figure, he would likely lose due to growing discontent over power cuts and spiraling prices.
Earlier on Wednesday, pop star Youssou Ndour, a Senegalese musician who is one of Africa's best-known artists, said the amendments risk "plunging the country into chaos."
In a statement, he said the new law arises from "personal ambition," not from a desire to improve Senegal's electoral system. "No one has the right to set Senegal on fire," Ndour said.