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Senegal’s Postponed Presidential Election: Everything to Know

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Updated: | Originally published:

After a controversial back-and-forth that left the West African nation in limbo for weeks, the Senegal government has agreed to hold a first round of voting for its presidential election at the end of March, a month later than its originally scheduled date of Feb. 25.

The confusion wasn’t immediately over, however, as outgoing President Macky Sall and his cabinet announced Wednesday that the election should take place on March 24, while the Constitutional Council, Senegal’s top court, said that it should take place on March 31. The court later relented to the administration’s earlier date.

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The turmoil began when, at the urging of Sall, Senegal’s National Assembly had voted on Feb. 5 to postpone the election until Dec. 15, pushing polls back by nearly 10 months, to allow a probe into the selection of eligible candidates for the polls. Since then, protesters have taken to the streets, and critics have described the move as an institutional “coup,” as Sall would stay in office beyond his term expiration of April 2, until a new President takes power.

Senegal’s top court ruled on Feb. 15 that the country must hold its elections “as soon as possible,” rebuffing Sall’s proposed postponement as unconstitutional. “Neither the President of the Republic nor Parliament can postpone a presidential election,” the ruling declared, noting, however, that the election date will still have to be adjusted “to take into account lost campaign days.” Sall then proposed the national vote take place on June 2, which the court also rejected for extending Sall’s mandate.

People burn tires as they block a road during demonstrations called by opposition parties to protest the postponement of Senegal’s presidential election, in Dakar on Feb. 4, 2024John Wessels—AFP/Getty Images

This marks the first time an election has been delayed in Senegal, which has had generally peaceful transitions of power since it gained independence from France in 1960 but has recently experienced a decline in civil liberties that has opposition lawmakers, civilians, rights watchdogs, and other governments worried. Until now, Senegal (population 18 million) had been an outlier in the region, in which neighboring nations have experienced destabilizing civil wars and military coups.

Here’s what to know about the situation.

How did it get to this point?

In the weeks leading up to the expected election, major opposition figures have been controversially jailed or excluded from the list of eligible candidates to run for President, leading to questions being raised by lawmakers and activists about fairness and potential judiciary corruption.

In a televised address from the presidential palace in capital Dakar on Feb. 3, Sall announced that the election could not go forward as scheduled until such issues were resolved. “I will begin an open national dialogue to bring together the conditions for a free, transparent, and inclusive election,” Sall declared.

But observers suggest that the desired delay could be motivated by politics more than propriety.

Sall—who announced last year that he would not be running again after winning election to a 7-year term in 2012, followed by reelection to a 5-year term in 2019 after a referendum passed to limit Presidents to two 5-year terms—endorsed Prime Minister Amadou Ba as his preferred successor. But while Ba was considered the favorite in December, his odds of victory have recently narrowed amid growing public frustrations, particularly among youth, with the government and state of democracy in Senegal under the leadership of his and Sall’s Alliance for the Republic party.

Portugal Hosts State Visit To Portugal Of The President Of The Republic Of Senegal Macky Sall
Senegal President Macky Sall in Lisbon, Portugal, on June 20, 2023.Horacio Villalobos—Corbis/Getty Images

Among those currently barred from the ballot are Ousmane Sonko, a popular opposition politician seen as the greatest threat to the ruling coalition who was imprisoned last year and whose African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) party was dissolved amid accusations of inciting insurrection, as well as Karim Wade, the candidate of the opposition Senegalese Democratic Party and son of Sall’s predecessor Abdoulaye Wade.

But the jailed Sonko, who also faces several other criminal charges that his supporters believe to be politically motivated, made his first public appearance since his arrest last July via a video shared last week in which he threw his weight behind his former PASTEF deputy Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who has similarly been detained since April on several charges including defamation and contempt of court.

“Our reading is that Sall became convinced that Ba was going to lose to Bassirou Diomaye Faye, the radical running as Sonko’s stand-in, and chose to postpone the election to play for time,” François Conradie, lead political economist at Oxford Economics Africa, told Bloomberg.

Who are the main characters involved?

Macky Sall, 62, is a trained geological engineer who served as Prime Minister from 2004 to 2007 and as President of the National Assembly from 2007 to 2008. He founded the Alliance for the Republic party in 2008 and won his two campaigns for the presidency on platforms promising socially-inclusive economic development and growth.

Amadou Ba, 62, has been Senegal’s Prime Minister since 2022 and previously served as foreign minister and finance minister. In September, Sall announced Ba would be the presidential candidate of the United in Hope coalition led by Sall and Ba’s Alliance for the Republic party. Sall said he chose Ba based on his “professional skills, a diversified career” as well as “the qualities of humility, of listening to lead.” (Sall relieved Ba of his premiership on March 6 so that he could focus on his campaign duties.)

Ousmane Sonko, 49, is a former tax inspector-turned-whistleblower who founded the PASTEF party in 2014 and served as a member of the National Assembly between 2017 and 2022 before becoming mayor of Ziguinchor. Sonko, described by some as a generational leader and by others as a dangerous populist and nationalist, has gained mass appeal as a firebrand critic of the country’s older political establishment. Controversially, he was accused of rape and making death threats, which he was acquitted of after a contentious public trial last year that sparked deadly protests across the country, though Sonko was sentenced to two years prison for corrupting youth and faces other charges including inciting insurrection and libel.

Demonstrators hold a banner depicting detained Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko during a rally to demand the release of all political prisoners, in Dakar on Oct. 27, 2023.Carmen Abd Ali—AFP/Getty Images

Bassirou Diomaye Faye, 43, is PASTEF’s former secretary-general and Sonko’s designated stand-in for the presidential election, if he remains allowed to run. Like Sonko, Faye is also a former tax inspector, and Sonko said in his endorsement that he views Faye as his “little brother,” praising his honesty and capability.

Karim Wade, 55, is a former advisor to and minister overseeing a wide portfolio under his father, Abdoulaye Wade, who served as President from 2000 to 2012. Viewed as groomed to be the political successor to his father, who has been secretary general of the Senegalese Democratic Party since it was founded in 1974 and continues to lead it at age 97, the younger Wade was considered a strong contender for the presidency until he was disqualified by the Constitutional Court in January from running because of his dual French-Senegalese citizenship. Karim Wade ran in Dakar local elections in 2009 but after a surprising underperformance, his father appointed him Minister of International Cooperation, Regional Development, Air Transport, and Infrastructure—a move critics derided as overt nepotism. After leaving office when Sall’s government took over in 2012, Karim was charged with corruption and served three years in jail before he was pardoned by Sall in 2016 and moved to Qatar to live in exile.

Other notable candidates include: former Dakar mayor Khalifa Ababacar Sall, former Prime Ministers Idrissa Seck and Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne, and poultry industry executive and political novice Anta Babacar Ngom Diack.

What has international reaction been like?

Civil society groups had already been warning of a pre-election deterioration of freedoms in Senegal in recent months. CIVCUS Monitor, a South Africa-based NGO, reported in December that the country “experienced one of the largest declines in civic freedoms in 2023 of any country on Earth,” while Human Rights Watch outlined in January how “authorities in Senegal have cracked down on the opposition, media, and civil society.”

After the government restricted news broadcasts and internet access “due to the dissemination of several hateful and subversive messages relayed on social networks in the context of threats and disturbances to public order” and security forces clashed with and arrested demonstrators amid protests over the election postponement in Dakar, Amnesty International described the events as “a blatant assault on the right to freedom of expression and press rights.”

Senegalese gendarmes patrol a road during unrest in Dakar on Feb. 4, 2024.John Wessels—AFP/Getty Images

About the election postponement, the African Union urged Senegalese authorities in a Feb. 4 statement “to organize the elections as soon as possible, in transparency, peace and national harmony” and for “all political and social forces to resolve any political dispute through consultation, understanding and civilized dialogue.” Similarly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) urged “the entire political class to prioritize dialogue and collaboration for the organization of a transparent, inclusive and credible election” and encouraged Sall to “continue to defend and protect Senegal’s long democratic tradition.”

Governments outside Africa have also called for a swift resolution to the political chaos. European Union spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy Nabila Massrali posted on X that “The EU joins [ECOWAS] and calls for a transparent, inclusive and credible election.”

France’s foreign ministry said on Feb. 4 that it “is following the situation in Senegal very closely,” while the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs said in a post on X: “Senegal has a strong tradition of democracy and peaceful transitions of power. We acknowledge allegations of irregularities, but we are deeply concerned about the disruption to the Presidential electoral calendar.”

During an International Monetary Fund briefing on Feb. 5, the body’s African Department Director Abebe Aemro Selassie said the IMF is watching “with concern” the situation unfolding in Senegal. “Political uncertainty can be detrimental to economic activity,” Selassie said. “We must think beyond the IMF program and about making sure that Senegal passes through this difficult period of political tension successfully.”

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