With democracies sliding into autocratic rule in several parts of Africa in recent months, a crucial new test is looming on Sunday in the West African nation of Senegal.
Senegal is the only country in West Africa that has never suffered a military coup, and it is often praised as a democratic success story, where competitive politics has endured in various forms for three decades. But this year its freedoms have been eroded, and Sunday's election will be vital to its future – and perhaps to the future of African democracy.
In other parts of Africa lately, the trends have been negative. Senegal's neighbour, Mali, was hit by a military coup this week. The southern African nation of Malawi is increasingly authoritarian, with police arresting opposition leaders and activists. Zimbabwe's police and military are harassing anyone who opposes President Robert Mugabe. In Uganda and Congo, elections last year were heavily tilted in favour of the ruling powers.
Senegal has a chance to buck this trend. Its 85-year-old president, Abdoulaye Wade, did everything he could to ensure his victory in the first round of the election last month, but gained only 35 per cent of the vote, and now faces a close race on Sunday in a runoff against his main opponent, Macky Sall.
If Mr. Wade is defeated – and if he accepts defeat – it would be only the third peaceful handover of power in a democratic African election in the past three years. (Ghana and Zambia are the others.)
Mr. Wade, first elected in 2000, has used dubious tactics in his efforts to extend his rule. He engineered a court ruling to give himself the right to seek a third term in office (even though the current constitution specifies a two-term limit). The same court found a technicality to disqualify Mr. Wade's strongest opponent, the famed singer Youssou N'Dour.
The controversial court rulings led to weeks of protests in Senegal. At least six people were killed and 150 injured in clashes with police. But the protests subsided when the first round of the election seemed fair and transparent.
Analysts are expecting a close contest on Sunday. Most opposition leaders, including Mr. N'Dour, have rallied around Mr. Sall, who won 27 per cent of the vote in the first round. The public mood was dramatically illustrated when Mr. Wade was loudly jeered and heckled by hundreds of voters when he voted in last month's election.
While the unity of the opposition leaders could favour Mr. Sall in Sunday's vote, Mr. Wade is still supported by key religious leaders. And there are doubts that Mr. Wade will accept defeat if he loses. "The possibility of my defeat is absurd," Mr. Wade told a local television station this week. "There is only one hypothesis. I win."
After his re-election in 2007, Mr. Wade has become increasingly unpopular in Senegal because of rising food prices and electricity cuts. He was also criticized for spending $27-million on a massive 49-metre-tall bronze statue, the African Renaissance Monument, built by North Korean workers in the capital, Dakar.
He has shown signs of a growing authoritarian streak in recent years, taking steps to weaken the National Assembly and centralize power in his own office. He appears to be grooming his son, Karim, to succeed him as president in the future. Some analysts, however, predict he would be unable to cling to power if he loses Sunday's election because the military would not support him.
Mr. Sall, meanwhile, has drawn large crowds to his campaign rallies. Some voters are suspicious of him, however, because he served as prime minister under Mr. Wade from 2004 to 2007 and is sometimes seen as too close to the president – though he showed his independence in parliament by summoning Mr. Wade's son for questioning over charges of mismanagement of an Islamic summit in 2008.