By Richard Valdmanis
DAKAR (Reuters) - Senegal is heading for its most contentious election in recent history on Sunday overshadowed by political violence and a constitutional row that could sully its enviable reputation as West Africa's most stable democracy.
President Abdoulaye Wade is seeking a third term against a field of more than a dozen challengers and he appears to have the edge over a divided opposition.
His candidacy has sparked deadly protests from opponents who say it flouts a two-term limit introduced by constitutional reform, and has also drawn criticism from trade and aid partners France and the United States. Opposition figures have said they are concerned Wade's supporters will try to rig the elections.
At least six people have been killed in street clashes between opposition protesters and police since late January, when a top legal council whose lead judge was appointed by Wade ruled the 85-year-old could stand again.
"I think it is a crucial election for Senegal... (either) consolidating electoral democracy in the country or, if it goes bad, then it could be a ... regression in democratic progress in Senegal and in the region," said Gilles Yabi, the West Africa Project Director for the International Crisis Group think tank.
The European Union's observer mission for the February 26 vote said it was concerned about problems and delays in distributing hundreds of thousands of voter cards, and about transparency and a police crackdown against opposition demonstrations.
"We really want Senegal to remain stable and an example, as it is, in the region," Thijs Berman, the head of the EU delegation, told Reuters during a trip to Touba, Senegal's second most populous city and the religious capital of the predominantly Muslim state.
Berman said questions also remained over the constitutional council's decision last month to approve Wade's candidacy despite a 2001 constitutional reform that limits presidents to two terms. He said police had used "disproportionate violence" against demonstrations triggered by the ruling.
Opposition umbrella group M23, named after an anti-Wade riot on June 23 last year, has organized near daily street protests, often leading to clashes between rock-throwing youths and police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.
"All people need to do is to beat Wade at the polls. We'll see all these troubles are worthless. It is killing and hurting people, and Senegal has never known that," said Salimata Sy, a bank worker in the capital Dakar.
NO VOTER CARDS
Senegal is the only nation in mainland West Africa that has not suffered a coup since independence - from France in 1960 - and previous elections have gone mostly smoothly, a record the country has worn as a badge of democratic distinction.
Sunday's polls follow elections held in Ivory Coast that triggered a civil war last year, and a vote in central Africa's Democratic Republic of Congo in November that was widely criticized by international observers as badly flawed.
Wade, who took power in 2000 after a long career in opposition politics, has touted infrastructure projects including new roads and an airport as major achievements. But he has been criticized for not doing enough to improve the lives of ordinary Senegalese, most of whom live on a few dollars a day.
His construction of a grandiose $27 million African Renaissance monument, which he boasted was slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty in the United States, drew widespread condemnation from opponents.
They called it an act of megalomania at a time when Senegal was facing rising food prices and daily power cuts.
Wade, running on the slogan "This is the man to trust," has argued he needs a third term to finish his work. He says his first term should not count under the two-term presidential limit because the amendment was added to the constitution in 2001, a year after he initially came to office.
The United States has called his decision to run again "regrettable" and France's foreign minister said it was time for Senegal's younger generation to take power, comments that Wade's government furiously rejected as "interference."
Wade faces 13 other contenders, including main rivals Macky Sall and Idrissa Seck, both former prime ministers who had served under him. Superstar musician Youssou Ndour's application to run was rejected by the constitutional council on the grounds he did not collect enough signatures to support his candidacy.
Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo arrived in Dakar on Tuesday on a mission for the West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the African Union to promote dialogue between the feuding Senegalese parties in the election.
The EU observer mission said on Friday nearly half a million newly registered voters, or nearly 9 percent of an electorate of just over 5 million, had yet to collect their election cards.
Babacar Gueye, who heads Senegal's COSCE civil society grouping, said there were areas of the country where voters had been slow to pick up the voting cards, because they didn't know where or how to do it. He said there had also been instances of elector's cards being bought or 'doubles' issued.
"There are no perfect elections, especially on this continent," Gueye told reporters in Dakar.
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(Additional reporting by Diadie Ba and Pascal Fletcher in Dakar; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)