By Pascal Fletcher
DAKAR (Reuters) - Asked what might happen if Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade is declared winner of the West African country's elections, student Nando da Silva mouths the sound of an explosion: "Boom!"
Casting his first round ballot last month in Grand Yoff, a dusty Dakar suburb which is a labyrinth of sandy streets and crowded homes, da Silva is one of many young Senegalese who want to see an end to the octogenarian president's 12-year rule.
"African leaders like politics ... khaliss," the 19-year-old adds with an impish grin, using the local Wolof language term for money and rubbing his thumb and finger together to emphasis how high political office brings enrichment for a few.
The clamor for change and renewal in one of Africa's most stable states is colliding headlong with Wade's disputed bid for a third term, setting up a ballot-box battle many see as a test for electoral democracy in the world's poorest continent.
A surprisingly peaceful February 26 first round vote followed violent anti-Wade protests in the election run-up that killed at least six people. The contest is headed for a deciding second round run-off on March 25 between frontrunner Wade, 85, and his former prime minister Macky Sall, 50.
Inside and outside Africa, Senegal's election is being closely scrutinized to see whether it upholds and advances a positive spread of multi-party political pluralism since the end of the Cold War more than two decades ago, or whether it will exacerbate what many are calling a "democratic recession".
"Across Africa as a whole, it sends a signal," said Abdul Tejan-Cole, Dakar-based regional director for Africa of the Open Society Foundations, a pro-democracy network founded by the billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros.
Supporters of democracy have hailed the flowering of frequent elections that have accompanied Africa's general shift away from dictators and one-party states since the late 1980s. But in recent years, they have started to sound the alarm about what they see as a deterioration of these democratic gains.
"There was a time in the 60s, 70s, when we were talking about coups d'etat, then in the 80s and 90s we were talking about presidents for life. Now we've got to a stage where we are having elections ... Now it's really about the quality of the elections," Tejan-Cole told Reuters.
He and other observers point to "manipulation" of democracy by some elected or long-serving African rulers, who speak the language of pluralism to appease donors but then use all powers at their disposal to rig or fix elections. Many have also sought, often successfully, to extend their terms through constitutional reforms forced through compliant parliaments.
"DEMOCRACY WITHOUT DEMOCRATS"
"I think several African countries have seen attempts to create democracy without democrats," said Professor Babacar Gueye, who heads a civil society collective in Senegal that provided volunteers to observe the country's election.
In the last decade, a number of African rulers from Algeria to Uganda have succeeded in fixing their constitutions to remove term limits and gain more time in power.
At the same time, states across the continent have stumbled through elections whose processes and outcomes have sometimes been criticized by observers as deficient or outright flawed, such as the polls in Democratic Republic of Congo in November that re-elected President Joseph Kabila.
Other closely-fought votes have exploded into violence such as in Kenya in 2007 and Ivory Coast in 2010, and expected elections this year in Angola and Zimbabwe, where long-serving rulers preside, are already generating attention, and concerns.
Nevertheless, regional power South Africa has held regular credible elections since the end of apartheid in 1994 and others, such as Ghana, Mali, Zambia, Benin and Cape Verde, can boast of having gained international praise for 'good' elections involving genuine political alternation.
One widespread problem is the "patronage and spoils" system of politics in Africa. Here, as elsewhere in the developing world, power almost always signifies opportunities for rapid personal enrichment for individuals and political elites, which they are often reluctant to give up once ensconced in office.
"I don't see democracy in Africa. People just want to be in power to get rich," said Awa Faye Ndoye, a Dakar housewife.
Many Senegalese voters now view Wade, who was enthusiastically elected in 2000 when he unseated the long-serving Socialists, as just one more example of this kind of self-serving lapsed democrat seeking to hang on to power.
Opponents, many of whom re-elected Wade in 2007, accuse him of attempts to engineer a succession scenario for his 43-year-old banker son Karim and point to an equally abortive plan to limit the Senegalese election to a single round. Both the president and his son have denied any succession plans.
Underpinning this is bubbling frustration over prices for staple foods, basic goods and fuel which have spiraled upwards, squeezing most citizens in the small, largely Muslim, mainly agricultural country that depends heavily on foreign aid.
Tirades against Wade are invariably prefaced by the exasperated complaint "Life is too expensive!"
But despite this palpable groundswell against the president, especially in Dakar, the incumbent led in the first round with 34.8 percent of the votes compared with Sall's 26.6 percent in a total field of 14 contenders, according to official results.
The president has his supporters. "Yes, he is old, but in a household you need wisdom. If the old man goes, whoever comes will have a lot of problems," said Ousmane Cisse, 72, a street trader, as he fingered his string of black prayer beads under a leather awning on a sandy curbside.
"MAN TO MAN MARKING" FOR ELECTION
The biggest outpouring of fury against Wade greeted his contested candidacy for a third term - endorsed by a Constitutional Council whose head he appointed. Opponents said this flouted a two-term limit enshrined by a 2001 constitutional reform, but Wade's supporters argued this was not retroactive and the council ruled he could stand for a third time.
In the run-up to the February 26 first round, the controversy saw rock-throwing protesters fighting pitched battles with riot police, turning normally tranquil streets around Dakar's Independence Square into a tear gas-clouded battleground.
"Maybe he is a democrat ... in the end. But before that he is trying to exploit democracy by using all the powers at his disposal," said Mamadou Diane, 35, an unemployed teacher in Dakar's gritty Parcelles Assainies working class neighborhood.
"Senegal has woken up since 2000," said trader Khady Diop.
But instead of the widely feared violence on the first round voting day - which could have inflicted more damage on Senegal's cherished reputation for tranquility - voters cast their ballots peacefully at polling stations around the country, which mostly opened on time with material and electoral officers in place.
Completing a picture of free, fair and orderly elections, widely praised by foreign observers, was the presence during the vote counting process of representatives of all participating political parties - an important check against cheating.
Another such check was provided by dozens of mostly local journalists, many of them from Senegal's active radio networks, who swamped voting stations to broadcast results across the airwaves as soon as they were posted by voting bureaux.
"We put man-to-man marking on this election," said 40-year-old mechanic Baila Badye, using a soccer term that describes the way a team closes down in defense when its goal is under threat.
Analysts say this kind of political awareness, still patchy and weak across much of Africa, is essential to provide an effective bulwark against election rigging and fraud.
"You need people to really understand that they can actually influence the system," said Gilles Yabi, West Africa Project Director for the International Crisis Group think tank.
One diplomat told how a voter had shown him his electoral registration card and said: "This is my rock," suggesting he believed his ballot was more powerful than protests.
This "close-marking" of the vote by foreign and national observers, but especially by ordinary citizens, made it virtually impossible for any side to try to declare an outright first round win before any official results had been announced.
Such early calls are a pre-emptive tactic seen in many African elections. They invariably trigger controversy, even violence, and rumors swirled through Dakar hours after the February 26 vote that Wade's campaign might try to declare he had already won the overall election with over 50 percent of the vote.
"There was concern on our part that Wade had learned to game the system ... the Senegalese people came through ... they sent a message to Abdoulaye Wade that they wanted a second round and they also sent a message that democracy in Africa works and that government in Senegal is still by the constitution and not by the person," the diplomat said.
"TOO EARLY FOR VICTORY LAPS"
The United States, a key donor, and France, the top exporter to Senegal, expressed concerns about Wade's third-term bid. Washington said it risked destabilizing Senegal, while Paris said it would like to see power transferred to a younger generation. The European Union and African Union sent observers to the polls, and along with the United States, backed a network of several thousand local volunteers to watch the vote.
Democracy supporters say this scrutiny must stay for the March 25 second round, where Wade, whose 26 years in politics have earned him the nickname "the Hare" - in Senegal symbolizing cunning as a fox does in Europe - faces a formidable challenge.
"We have to remain vigilant," said Father Alphonse Seck, executive-secretary of the Episcopal Justice and Peace Commission of Senegal's Catholic Church, which deployed its Scouts and Guides movement as election observers.
"Particularly in elections, you get the impression Africa sometimes takes one step forward and two steps back," he said.
Sall is working to rally a powerful anti-Wade coalition behind him for the run-off, including defeated contenders from the first round. He has gained the endorsement of world-famous music star Youssou N'Dour, who is a vocal critic of Wade's re-election bid and had joined the street protests.
This has already created a body of opinion in the country that Wade "cannot win" the second round - a phenomenon that veteran election watchers say creates a potentially dangerous level of skewed expectancy which could easily spill into violence if voters feel their choice is not respected.
Whether or not Senegal maintains its prized badge as one of the most stable and mature democracies in Africa - an example to project across the continent - is now riding on the eagerly-anticipated March 25 run-off.
(Additional reporting by David Lewis, Diadie Ba and Mark John; Editing by Mark John and Janet McBride)