21 March 2024

2 min read

Presidential elections in Senegal’s precarious democracy

Geopolitical analysis
Mbour Senegal Fishing Harbour

On 24 March, 7 million people will take part in the presidential elections in Senegal. The risk of electoral violence is elevated, as the vote takes place amid looming political tensions after the government’s last-minute attempt to postpone the elections triggered deadly civil unrest last month, writes Zaynab Hoosen.

Senegal has long been considered one of the most stable democracies in the more turbulent West Africa region. However, after 12 years under President Macky Sall’s government, the country’s democracy is in a precarious state. Authorities under Sall, who initially came to office following a campaign premised on anti-corruption and upholding democratic principles, launched a crackdown on the opposition and have since struggled to contain resultant anti-government unrest. For example, in March 2021, the arrest of opposition leader and corruption whistleblower Ousmane Sonko sparked protests which left five people dead and, in June 2023, Sonko’s conviction for “corrupting the youth” triggered further unrest which resulted in 16 fatalities. Sall has also sought to extend his time in office beyond the presidential two-term limit, most recently attempting to postpone the presidential elections - initially slated for 25 February - to 15 December, ostensibly due to controversies over the candidates list. In response, thousands of opposition activists protested countrywide, clashing with police in several cities including Dakar and Ziguinchor; three people were reportedly killed and hundreds of protesters were arrested amid the violence. The Constitutional Court subsequently overruled the postponement and the government set a new date for the polls for 24 March. But as the country prepares for the vote, tensions remain.

Tensions simmered down by a presidential pardon

In a bid to diffuse political tensions ahead of the vote, Sall granted amnesty to Sonko and his coalition’s presidential candidate, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was also in prison. Though Sonko himself is ineligible to contest due to his conviction of defamation for accusing a minister of theft, Sonko and Faye have been campaigning together across the country since their release from prison 10 days before the vote.

The pair have promised to tackle corruption and renegotiate mining and energy contracts, appealing to the youth disgruntled with the country’s leadership amid persistent unemployment and economic hardship, despite some uneasiness among investors. But, Faye will be up against 18 candidates, including Prime Minister Amadou Ba, the ruling Alliance Pour la République (APR)’s flagbearer who could benefit from the party’s influence over state apparatus or from rural support in the vote. Other candidates include former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck and former mayor of Dakar Khalifa Sall, while Karim Wade, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade remains excluded from contesting.

Once bitten, twice shy

The Constitutional Court’s ruling on the election's postponement ensured that voters are heading to the polls this month and not in December as Sall had hoped. That has helped Senegal narrowly avoid further political upheaval and sustained unrest in the short term. But with no definitive favourite set to secure the required 50 percent of the vote, the elections may go to a run-off. In this context, Senegal is set to enter a period of prolonged uncertainty – and risk of civil unrest – beyond the vote on 24 March. And investors, eager to leverage Senegal’s burgeoning oil and gas prospects, or those exposed to the country’s outstanding international bonds, cannot assume that Senegal’s political troubles will immediately dissipate after these elections.

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