After days of predicting that he would win a third term with a crushing majority, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade on Monday acknowledged that he may not have gotten enough votes to avoid a runoff.
The normally loquacious leader didn't take questions and appeared subdued as he met reporters for the first time since Sunday's contentious election, which was preceded by weeks of protests calling for the leader's departure. Reading from a prepared statement, Wade said that with more than half of the vote counted, he was leading 13 other candidates with 32.17 percent. He needs more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff.
Experts say that for the 85-year-old to remain in power he needed to win on the first round when the opposition was split between multiple candidates. In a runoff, his chances of winning are much slimmer because the opposition will be united behind a single contender.
"To all of my supporters, my allies, my sympathizers, I ask that you remain mobilized because at this very hour, the trend from votes counted in 282 out of 551 districts _ or half the vote _ give me the lead with 32.17 percent to 25.24 percent for my nearest opponent," Wade said. "So everything is still possible _ victory, or a runoff."
This nation of over 12 million on Africa's western coast is considered one of the oldest and most robust democracies on the continent, but for weeks daily life has been upended by protests calling for Wade to resign. Analysts have warned of further unrest if Wade were to win the election, and the specter of more violence has eroded the image of a nation that has been held up as a model of stability.
As votes were being tallied Monday, leading opposition candidate Macky Sall declared that a runoff was "inevitable." Sall told the country's private radios that he had won both the capital and several major towns in the interior, though he said neither he nor the president had gotten the majority needed to avoid a second ballot.
Wade had angered the opposition in the days leading up to the vote by saying he would win on the first round with "a crushing majority." He was loudly booed when he came to his home precinct to vote Sunday, and his bodyguards quickly led him inside the polling booth after a mob surrounded him.
While he was inside voting, they began to chant the chorus of a song composed by a group of anti-Wade rappers: "Old man, get lost."
It's a sad chapter in the career of a man whose election 12 years ago was met with euphoria. A former opposition leader, Wade spent 25 years from 1974 to 2000 trying to topple the socialist party that ruled Senegal for 40 years after the country's independence from France in 1960. His victory in 2000 was held up as an example of Senegal's democratic maturity, because the former president gracefully accepted his loss.
Famously, ex-President Abdou Diouf telephoned Wade to concede defeat, an American-style gesture that was unheard of in Africa at the time. Many wonder if Wade will step down as gracefully as his predecessor should he lose the runoff next month.
The protests that have rocked the country began last summer when Wade attempted to rush a law through parliament that would have reduced the percentage a candidate needed to win on the first round from 50 to 25 percent. He was forced to scrap the proposal after riots immobilized the capital.
Wade has insisted on running for a third term, even though he revised the constitution after he came to office to impose a two-term maximum.
In the two weeks preceding the vote, there were protests nearly every day. Wade has refused international calls to step down, including from the United States which called his candidacy "regrettable" and a threat to the country's democracy.
Sunday's vote proceeded peacefully. Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, who was in Dakar to observe the election, said: "Despite the tension in recent weeks, I witnessed firsthand the Senegalese people stepping out peacefully into the streets to make their voices heard where it truly counted _ at the ballot box."
The recent unrest has been uncharacteristic for Senegal, which is the country that many international businesses chose to relocate to after the start of the civil war in Ivory Coast a decade ago. Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, was once the most urbane city in the region and if companies chose to move to the less-developed Senegal, it was largely due to the country's image of stability and its reputation as a vibrant democracy.
"On Feb. 26, 2012, you went to the ballot box in large numbers ... with calmness, discipline, dignity and serenity," Wade said in his prepared statement on Monday. "The Feb. 26 vote confirms that our country remains solidly anchored in the small circle of modern democracies. ... Our country remains faithful to its reputation."
Associated Press writers Thomas Faye and Sadibou Marone in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.