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Opposition candidate Faye takes early lead in Senegal presidential polls

By Diadie Ba and Bate Felix

DAKAR (Reuters) -Early results from Senegal's presidential vote put opposition candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye ahead, sending his supporters to celebrate in the streets, though his main rival from the ruling coalition said a run-off will be needed to determine the winner.

At least five of the 19 candidates in the race issued statements as results trickled after the election on Sunday, congratulating Faye.

Former prime minister Amadou Ba, the ruling coalition's candidate, said however that celebrations were premature.

"For our part, and considering the feedback of the results from our team of experts, we are certain that, in the worst case scenario, we will go to a run-off," Ba's campaign said in a statement.

Millions took part in a peaceful day on voting to elect Senegal's fifth president following three years of unprecedented political turbulence that sparked violent anti-government protests and buoyed support for the opposition.

At stake is the potential end of an administration led by outgoing President Macky Sall that has promoted investor-friendly policies but failed to ease economic hardship in one of coup-prone West Africa's more stable democracies.

Voters had a choice of 19 contenders to replace Sall, who is stepping down after a second term marred by unrest over the prosecution of firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and concerns that the president wanted to extend his mandate past the constitutional limit.

The incumbent was not on the ballot for the first time in Senegal's history. His ruling coalition picked Ba, 62, as its candidate.

EARLY TALLIES

About 7.3 million people were registered to vote in the country of around 18 million. Turnout was at around 71%, according to state television RTS.

Election day ran smoothly with no major incidents reported.

The first set of tallies announced on television showed Faye had won the majority of votes, triggering widespread street celebrations in the capital Dakar.

Jubilant supporters gathered in Sonko's neighbourhood as supporters set off fireworks, waved Senegalese flags and blew vuvuzelas.

At least five opposition candidates later declared Faye the winner, effectively conceding defeat. They included one of the main contenders, Anta Babacar Ngom, who wished Faye success as leader of Senegal in a statement.

It was not clear how many of the 15,633 polling stations have been counted so far.

Final provisional results are expected by Tuesday. A second round of voting will only take place if no candidate secures the more than 50% majority required to prevent a runoff.

'DIOMAYE IS SONKO'

Sonko, in jail until recently, was disqualified from the race because of a defamation conviction. He is backing Faye, the co-creator of his now dissolved Pastef party, who was also detained almost a year ago on charges including defamation and contempt of court.

An amnesty law passed this month allowed their release days before the vote. They have campaigned together under the banner "Diomaye is Sonko". Some high-profile politicians and opposition candidates have backed Faye's candidacy.

"The population is choosing between continuation and rupture," Faye said after casting his vote, urging contenders to accept the winner.

Sall, first elected in 2012, is leaving office after a drop in popularity that deepened when authorities sought to postpone the vote to December. It was initially scheduled for Feb. 25.

The move stoked unrest and concerns about authoritarian overreach, prompting Senegal's Constitutional Council to rule the vote should go ahead before the end of Sall's mandate on April 2.

Faye has promised to root out corruption, restore stability and prioritise economic sovereignty, appealing to the urban youth frustrated by a lack of jobs in a country where 60% of the population is younger than 25.

(Reporting by Diadie Ba and Bate FelixAdditional reporting by Portia Crowe, Ngouda Dione and Alessandra PrenticeWriting by Sofia ChristensenEditing by David Goodman, Ros Russell and Lincoln Feast)