Senegal voters head to polls as presidential challenger hopes to cause upset

Presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko speaks during a political rally in Thies on February 20, 2019.

(CNN)Voters in Senegal are casting their ballots Sunday in the first round of the country's presidential election, with incumbent President Macky Sall expected to win re-election.

The incumbent has overseen a period of healthy growth and delivered several landmark infrastructure projects, including highways, train lines, and a new international airport.
Much of this development work has been underwritten by Chinese investment, which totals over over $1.6 billion, according to China's ambassador to Senegal Zhang Xun.
    Sall, 57, benefits from a more substantial campaign infrastructure than his rivals and has stated his expectation of a convincing victory.
    Around 6.5 million people registered ahead of the vote, which began at 8 a.m. (3 a.m. ET) and ends at 6 p.m. (1 p.m. ET), Reuters reported. Official results are expected to be announced Friday, with a run-off between the two frontrunners on March 24 if no single candidate secures a majority.
    Election officials prepare a polling station ahead of vote on Sunday.
    A poll published in November puts Sall on more than 45% of the vote -- a clear lead over his rivals.
    Another advantage for the incumbent is that two of his major challengers have been removed from contention.
    The former mayor of Dakar Khalifa Sall has been imprisoned for embezzling public funds and Karim Wade, son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, has been exiled to Qatar after serving three years in prison on corruption charges.
    Opponents have objected that the charges are politically motivated, and Amnesty International said both men were subject to "unfair trials."
    Of the remaining candidates, former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck is making a third run for the presidency, but the most serious challenge to Sall appears to be the youngest candidate: Ousmane Sonko, 44, a tax officer turned whistleblower who is now running for President as a candidate for the Pastef Partie.
    If Sall is the continuity candidate, Sonko is offering the opposite of business as usual.
    President Macky Sall greets supporters after casting his vote in Fatick on Sunday.

    Inspiring youth

    Sonko, a relative newcomer to frontline politics, has led an energetic campaign characterized by packed rallies of passionate supporters and a dedicated social media following.
    The youngest candidate in the race has gained particular resonance with the nation's youth.
    "He is very powerful among young people between 18 and 35 who are going to be voting for the first time," says political analyst Abdou Lo.
    "He is the best on social media with hundreds of volunteers who are very active on Facebook and Twitter."
    Sonko is standing on a radical platform of fighting for Senegalese interests in international dealings and attacking corruption at home, often in robust terms.
    A video emerged during the race in which Sonko said that corrupt politicians should be shot, and he has subsequently refused to rule out bringing charges against the presid