Senegalese started casting their ballots on Sunday in an election pitting President Abdoulaye Wade against a field of rivals, who say his bid for a third term is illegal and risks destabilizing the usually tranquil West African state.
The voting comes after weeks of violent street protests against the octogenarian leader's attempt to extend his 12 years in office and a stream of warnings that Senegal's reputation as an established democracy now hangs in the balance.
We can't plunge the country into chaos, said Mamadou Kane, a 53-year-old telecoms engineer, standing amid several dozen other voters at a polling station in a Dakar suburb. The best thing is to choose a candidate and vote.
Foreign powers and diplomats issued last minute appeals for calm and a transparent vote, and a top African mediator failed to secure an agreement between Wade, 85, and his rivals over a shortened term for the incumbent if he won.
We are closely watching the development of the situation. I have been concerned about what is happening there, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told journalists when asked about Senegal during a visit to Zambia on Saturday.
I sincerely hope that this election will be held peacefully in a credible, open and transparent manner so that the will of the people will be fully respected, he said.
Voting was scheduled to start at 0800 GMT, and polling stations across the seaside capital Dakar appeared to open on time in an organised fashion, according to witnesses.
FATHER OF THE NATION
The former French colony has long enjoyed a reputation for stability and has held a series of successful elections in an often turbulent region since independence in 1960.
But the run-up to Sunday's poll has been tense, with Wade's rivals saying he should not be allowed to stand due to term limits but the incumbent saying restrictions were brought in after he took power, so his first term did not count.
Senegal's top legal body in late January approved Wade's candidacy, triggering a fresh wave of protests.
At least six people have been killed in election-related violence so far. Washington has said his decision to run again was regrettable while Paris has said it was time for Senegal's younger generation to take power.
But Wade, a veteran of years in opposition before he took power in 2000, has mocked rivals at home for failing to mobilise a significant challenge and batted critics from abroad.
This is Africa. Yes, I am old but I am physically well, Wade told French weekly Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.
My age has become an advantage. I am president and father of the nation. This is what the Europeans do not understand.
Some 5.1 million Senegalese are eligible to vote for the 14 contenders, which include main rivals Macky Sall and Idrissa Seck, both former prime ministers who had served under Wade.
Days before voting took place, the European Union observer mission warned that 500,000 voters, nearly 9 percent of the electorate, were yet to collect their voter cards.
Amid the rows over Wade's candidacy, warnings of further violence and talks over possibly limiting Wade's time in power if he won, some Senegalese retained hope in the process.
My weapon is my voter card, said Ahmed Ndiaye, a 22 year-old carpenter in Dakar. I will use it and I hope that it will rid us of this old president.
(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Mark John, and Richard Valdmanis in Dakar, Chris Mfula in Lusaka, and Catherine Bremer in Paris; Writing by David Lewis and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Sophie Hares)