Wade’s bid for a third term at the age of 85 has prompted deadly street protests in the usually peaceful West African state, though voting on Sunday was calm and well-organised.
Critics have said the constitution bans Wade, who has been in power for the last 12 years, from seeking a third term, a charge he has brushed off.
With results from around half the country’s polling stations in, he was on 32 percent, ahead of former ally Macky Sall on around 25 percent but still well short of the 50 percent required for outright victory.
With full results still unavailable, representatives from the European Union and the United States said they thought a first-round victory was increasingly improbable.
“The results that we have clearly indicate that there will be a second round. We don’t need to be told it,” Wade campaign spokesman Amadou Sall told Reuters by telephone. “We voted peacefully, with dignity and in complete transparency. We don’t need to be taught any lessons – we know how to count.”
Senegal is the only nation in mainland West Africa that has not suffered a coup since independence – from France in 1960 – and the continuation of its stable democratic record is seen as crucial in setting an example for the coup-prone region.
Attention is now likely to swiftly turn to a run-off.
Sall, a former prime minister under Wade, has called on other candidates to back him in the run-off which is due to take place in the coming weeks. Authorities have until Friday to declare the official results of Sunday’s first round, after which legal appeals are possible.
Moustapha Niasse, another ex-premier under Wade now heading for third place with around 13 percent, has called for the opposition to urge supporters to vote against Wade in a run-off.
“Stopping Wade is an imperative, it is a necessity, this is a must,” Niasse told French RFI radio.
A spokesman for Idrissa Seck, once a close ally of Wade in the ruling centrist PDS party who also ran against his former patron, said Seck would not be supporting Wade in the run-off but did not explicitly give his backing to Sall.
Turnout was around 60 percent in Sunday’s election, with many Senegalese having to queue for hours to vote. In Dakar’s working-class neighbourhood of Parcelles Assainies, residents said they were confident in electoral democracy.
“Maybe the president thought that with the force of the state he could push the vote through, but people are determined to make a change,” said Mamadou Diane, an unemployed teacher.
The 90-member EU observer mission deemed the election to have been well-run apart from some problems such as the failure to properly check the indelible inkstains applied to voters’ fingers to prevent them from casting a ballot twice.
Votes collated by Reuters from results released by state news agency APS from Senegal’s 45 local departments gave Wade 34 percent of the vote compared to 26 percent for Sall. Sall led votes in the capital Dakar – by far the biggest department – with 25 percent to Wade’s 22 percent.
Washington warned this month that Wade’s decision to seek a new mandate could pose a risk to Senegal’s stability and urged him to make way for a new generation of leaders. At least six people died in pre-election violence. Reuters