Senegalese voters go to polls in delayed presidential election

People rest next to a fountain adorned with the Senegalese flag at Place de l'Indépendance, March 20, 2024, ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in Dakar, Senegal. [AP photo]

Senegal goes to the polls on Sunday to vote for its fifth president in a delayed election being held against a turbulent political backdrop which has triggered violent anti-government protests and boosted support for the opposition.

At stake is the potential end of a regime that has sustained investor-friendly policies in the soon-to-become oil and gas producer, but which has failed to alleviate economic hardship and stirred unrest in one of coup-prone West Africa's most stable democracies.

Nineteen contenders are vying to replace President Macky Sall, who is stepping down after a second term marred by violent unrest over the prosecution of firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and concerns that Sall wanted to extend his mandate past the constitutional limit.

The incumbent is not on the ballot for the first time in Senegal's history. His ruling coalition has picked former prime minister Amadou Ba, 62, as its candidate.

"I believe that I'm the candidate that offers political stability, serenity, and the capacity to move Senegal forward rapidly," Ba told journalists as campaigning closed Friday. "Senegal does not need a complete overhaul."

Around 7.3 million people are registered to vote, with polls opening at 0800 GMT and closing at 1800 GMT.

Vote counting will start immediately after polls close and provisional results are expected by March 26.

Sonko, who was disqualified from the race due to a defamation conviction, is backing former tax inspector Bassirou Diomaye Faye, 43, co-creator of the now dissolved Pastef party. Some high-profile politicians and opposition candidates have also backed Faye's candidacy.

Other contenders include ex-Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall (no relation to the outgoing president), entrepreneur-turned-politician Anta Babacar Ngom, who is the only woman running, and veteran politician Idrissa Seck, who came second in the 2019 presidential election.

A banner encouraging people to vote in the upcoming presidential elections is displayed in Dakar, Senegal, March 20, 2024. Words in French read: 'My Card, My Vote.'.  [AP photo]

Without any opinion polls, it is not clear whether any candidate will secure over 50% of the vote to prevent a runoff.

'Diomaye is Sonko'

Macky Sall, first elected in 2012, is leaving on a drop in popularity that worsened when he unsuccessfully sought to postpone the vote - initially scheduled on February 25 - to December.

The move stoked unrest and concerns about authoritarian overreach in the nation of around 18 million. It also buoyed opposition parties that rejected all attempts to delay the vote which could have extended the president's mandate.

Senegal's Constitutional Council sided with opposition parties, ruling that the vote should go ahead and that Sall's mandate could not be extended beyond April 2.

An amnesty law passed to ease tensions this month meanwhile allowed Sonko, and Faye - who had also been in detention for nearly a year, on charges including defamation and contempt of court -- to be released.

Both have hit the campaign trail under the banner "Diomaye is Sonko" as a crowd-pleasing duo.

Sonko, who came third in the last election in 2019, is particularly popular among urban youth frustrated with lack of jobs and high living costs in a country where 60% of the population is younger than 25.

"The election will show whether their popularity on social media is real," said Senegalese political analyst Babacar Ndiaye.

Most of Sonko's supporters are now expected to vote for Faye, analysts say. He has promised to root out allegedly entrenched corruption, restore stability and prioritize economic sovereignty.

But some of Faye's campaign promises, such as plans to renegotiate oil contracts just as Senegal is due to begin offshore oil and gas production, and the introduction of a national currency, have raised concerns that these could hurt the country's image as a destination for investors.

By AFP 6 hrs ago
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