Senegal's embattled president broke his silence for the first time Thursday since riots shook the West African country last month, making clear he plans to run for another term and issuing a challenge to his detractors who have demanded he step down.
Abdoulaye Wade said that he's willing to hold elections in 40 to 60 days, instead of waiting until next February when his five-year term is up. The riots that started in the last week of June were the worst of his 11-year rule and have emboldened the opposition, which has asked Wade to step aside as dictated by the constitution.
"If the opposition is in a hurry and is sure they can win, I can see holding the presidential election earlier, if that is what is needed for social cohesion and for national harmony," he said. "The constitution allows for a presidential election to be held in a maximum of 60 days and a minimum of 40 days. If the opposition wants, we can go to the polls in 40 days."
He went on to say that if another candidate were to win, he would be the first to congratulate them _ a nod to former President Abdou Diouf who called Wade to concede defeat in 2000. The gesture was unheard of in Africa at the time and has helped cement Senegal's image as a rare oasis of democracy in a region better known for strongman rule.
Wade's critics claim that he has taken an authoritarian turn and is now out of touch with the very people that helped elect him on a platform of Sopi, the Wolof word for change.
At issue is his plans to run for a third term, exploiting a loophole in the constitution, which normally allows only two. That's despite his age _ 85 _ which means that if elected, he would be governing into his 90s in a country where most people are dead at 60. Many are also angered by the increasing amount of power he has handed to his eldest son, who is the head of three ministries and who has been accused of embezzling state funds.
The most violent demonstration erupted on June 23 as Wade's government attempted to rush a law through parliament that would have created the post of vice president, a move the opposition charged was intended for Wade's son. Karim Wade is deeply unpopular and is considered unelectable, but if he was to ride into office on a ticket alongside his father he could then become president in the event of Wade's death in office.
Wade conceded he had made a mistake. But he lashed out at the opposition, saying he never intended to install his son.
"I recognize I made an error of judgment during the events of June 23 in regards to the proposed law that would have created a vice presidential ticket," he said at Thursday's gathering of lawmakers from the ruling party.
"I came to power through the ballot box. I am in favor of a free contest and so I am totally opposed to what certain people are calling a monarchic devolution of power, including to my son," he said.
Located on the western edge of Africa, this nation of 12.6 million does not have the natural resources of its neighbors, like Guinea _ the world's largest supplier of bauxite _ or Ivory Coast, the biggest producer of cocoa. Because of its stability, however, the GDP in Senegal has grown at a faster clip than nearly anywhere else in the region and has eclipsed countries, like Guinea, that are routinely upended by coups.
That has lured investors who just in the past year built a slick new mall with a two-story escalator and a bowling alley, as well as the five-star Radisson Blu. The opposition says the growth, however, has only benefited the rich, and they criticize Wade for failing to fix the country's power crisis. The lack of reliable power has become so bad that even in the posh Plateau district high-rise apartments are often without electricity for 12 hours at a stretch.
Diplomats including the French minister of foreign affairs have warned Wade that running for a third term could destabilize Senegal, pointing to the wave of protests that have rocked North Africa. On Thursday, Wade made clear that he plans to run for a third term.
"The opposition made the rounds of the religious leaders ... to ask them to tell me not to be a candidate as this would be a source of instability for the country," Wade said. "The religious chiefs told the opposition that I am a citizen and that I have every right to be a candidate."
He exuded confidence when he went on to say: "If the people hand power to someone other than me, I'll congratulate that person ... But whether we hold the election earlier or as it was already set by the electoral calendar, I fear that the winner will be none other than me."
Associated Press Writer Sadibou Marone contributed to this report.