(L-R) Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade; Opposition presidential candidate and former prime minister Macky Sall (February 2012 file photos)
(L-R) Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade; Opposition presidential candidate and former prime minister Macky Sall (February 2012 file photos)

Senegal is heading toward a presidential run-off vote that pits opposition leader Macky Sall against his former political mentor, incumbent Abdoulaye Wade.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has called Macky Sall his "best student."

The embattled incumbent now faces his apprentice in a run-off that could still hold a few surprises despite widespread frustration with the Wade government.

Senegalese have become increasingly disenchanted with Mr. Wade since the former champion of the opposition came to power in 2000.

A defaced poster of Senegal's President Abdoulaye
A defaced poster of Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade (R) with paint splattered on it, is seen through the window of a taxi driving through the center of Dakar, March 1, 2012

Critics said Mr. Wade has focused too much attention, and state funds, on legacy-building "grand projects" - monuments, highways, a new airport outside Dakar - while doing little to combat the power cuts, flooding and rising food prices that have plagued Senegal in recent years.

Mr. Sall has been quick to set himself up as the anti-Wade.  

He said from his first days in office, he pledges to put in place measures to reduce the prices of daily needs like rice, cooking oil and sugar. He also promised to reduce the presidential mandate from seven years to five, and to put in place proposed reforms that would decentralize government power from the presidency.

Supporters point to the former geological engineer's pragmatism as a stark contrast to the intellectualism of Abdoulaye Wade, the lawyer, economist and former university professor.

Still, the politicians' shared history is undeniable.

Mr. Sall served in Mr. Wade's government as mining minister, prime minister and president of the National Assembly. He was Mr. Wade's campaign manager in 2007 when the president won re-election in the first round.  Mr. Sall only left the ruling party to join the opposition in late 2008.

University student and Wade supporter Omar Ly said people critique what Wade has done, but Sall was part of that government. He said Sall contributed to all the problems that Senegalese now complain about. He said Sall was only pushed out when he attempted to investigate charges of corruption against the president's son.

Mr. Sall took 27 percent of votes in the first round of this presidential poll, finishing second to Mr. Wade's 36 percent.

The rest of the ballots - nearly 40 percent - went to a dozen other opposition candidates who have now all joined the Sall camp.

It would be tempting to do the math and predict opposition victory, but two unknowns cloud the picture.

First, nearly half of Senegal's 5.3 million registered voters did not go to the polls for the first round. It was a distinct drop from a 75 percent voter turnout in 2007. Many attributed it to insecurity surrounding the first-round poll.

Anti-government protests during campaigning had killed six people. The opposition was demanding Mr. Wade to withdraw his bid for a third term, saying it violated a two-term limit added to the constitution in 2001.

Both sides will campaign hard for these absentee voters.

Dakar housewife Awa Laye Fall said she thinks voter turnout may remain low but many people will vote for Macky Sall - not because he is better, she said, but because he is all they have. She said they want Wade out, but she doesn't trust Macky Sall. She said she doesn't think he is that different. She said all they can do is try to control him so that he does not follow in Wade's footsteps.

And therein lies the second unknown: Is it enough to ask people to vote against someone, instead of for someone else?

Nearly all of Mr. Wade's opposition has united behind Mr. Sall, including the musicians and civil society leaders of the M23 movement that spearheaded last month's protests.

The campaign vice-president for Senegal's main opposition coalition, Latif Coulibaly, said  opposition supporters will vote for Macky Sall, even if they are put off, because it will be easier to work with him in the presidency than with Mr. Wade. He said the incumbent president, at 85 years old, is too old to run the country. He said if they don't vote, Mr. Wade could remain in power and try to pass the country over to his son.

Still, analysts said Mr. Wade's camp could undercut high-level party alliances and win over opposition leaders at the local and regional levels, as well as secure the backing of influential Muslim religious leaders.

Official campaigning begins Thursday, and the race is far from over.