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Senegal : a Democracy at Risk? 

Picture of Jeanne Lauzevis

Jeanne Lauzevis

Journaliste rubrique internationale
The entire country was hanging on Macky Sall’s every word last Thursday, as he was meant to announce the new organization of the presidential elections, which he himself had postponed only three weeks before the vote. His reason: a supposed conflict about corruption, between the presidential candidates and members of the Constitutional Council. This decision provoked a huge wave of protestations across the country as the Senegalese feared the threat of a coup, usually foreshadowed by a postponed election. This fear of the population is nevertheless softened by the decision of the Constitutional Council to declare this postponement anti constitutional. But how did this political crisis begin? Will this conflict jeopardize democracy?

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Macky Sall, President of Senegal at the G20 Investment Summit on November 20, 2023 in Germany. Credits: Getty image, Bloomberg.
Macky Sall, President of Senegal at the G20 Investment Summit on November 20, 2023 in Germany. Credits: Getty image, Bloomberg.

The reasons behind the delay of the election

Macky Sall, the President of Senegal since 2012, announced his intention of postponing the presidential elections that were meant to be held on the 25th of February 2024. He strengthened his announcement at the Senegalese National Assembly where the deputies voted on the 5th of February for a report of ten months of the election. To understand the reasons behind this report, we have to go back to the 20th of January, when the Constitutional Council approved the list of candidates to the presidential election. The application of Karim Wade was rejected, presumably due to administrative reasons linked to his bi-nationality: Senegalese and French. Karim Wade accused the actual Prime Minister and candidate of the coalition in power Amadou Ba to have corrupted two members of the Constitutional Council into rejecting his application. Invoking a risk for the credibility of the vote, Macky Sall decided to postpone the election through a law project that was voted at the National Assembly two weeks later.

Macky Sall announced on Thursday 22nd of February his intention to leave his function of president at the end of his mandate, the 2nd of April, as it was the case for previous Senegalese presidents. Even though this speech was eagerly awaited, Macky Sall does not give clear information or a concrete date for the holding of the new election. This worries Senegalese citizens even more.

A strong opposition in the streets

In the beginning of February, the Senegalese were in the streets to show their opposition to the president’s decision. The Executive decided to forbid public demonstrations, which did not discourage the Senegalese. The group Aar Sunu Election (Let’s protect our election) took the lead and organized the demonstrations. Tensions have escalated during the following weeks: four persons have died since the beginning of the crisis. Important degradations have also been reported. “Free Senegal” and “No to the Constitutional coup” could be read on several signs. However, tensions decreased after the decision of the Constitutional Council to declare the postponement of the election anti-constitutional. Moreover, this decision was acknowledged by Macky Sall. 

 What can be inferred from the demonstrations is the lack of trust in the actual President Macky Sall. People do not believe he will keep his promise to organize another election and resign at the end of his mandate like he announced. The name of Ousmane Sonko, leader of the opposition can also be read on various sign. Demonstrators demanded his release from prison, where he has been since July 2023. If he is accused of various offenses such as incitement to insurrection and was the leader of the African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity party, dissolved last July, Ousmane Sonko still is at the center of the demonstrations in Dakar. More than three hundred demonstrators, most of them supporters of Ousmane Sonko, have been put under arrest during the protests. However, they were released at last, in order to prevent the already fragile situation from worsening. 

Is democracy at risk?

With his decision to postpone the presidential election, Macky Sall did plunge his country into political instability. Occupying the presidential office since 2012, Macky Sall does not seem to be ready to leave his place after two mandates. Senegalese fear that he tries to hang on to his position as the Head of the Executive. Macky Sall denies any attempt to hold on to power. He argues that the postponement of the election was necessary to settle the conflict around the list of the presidential candidates. Moreover, the law project was adopted by the National Assembly. Macky Sall went through the legal process to obtain the postponement. However, the project was declared anti-constitutional by the Constitutional Council. Therefore, Macky Sall was ordered to organize the election “as soon as possible”. The fact that he acknowledged this decision reassures the Senegalese regarding a possible coup. This does not mean that the crisis is resolved. Indeed, Macky Sall did not announce when the election will be held and a lot of uncertainty remains. 

What will happen next?

Macky Sall announced that he will set up a consultation next week on the subject with the other nineteen presidential candidates. He promised to provide more information on the election afterwards. The situation should be clearer Monday or Tuesday. A consensus can be found during the consultation on the date of the election and on its organization. If no agreement is found, the Constitutional Council will be asked to settle the question. The only way to not change too much the original calendar is to organize the presidential election in March. Consequently, the next president can take up his duties on the 2nd of April. Some questions remain unanswered about the consultation and the election: is a consensus possible? If a date is set up, will the list of the nineteen approved candidates remain intact ? Or will the whole process have to be repeated? Up to this day, sixteen candidates as well as the group Aar Sunu Election rejected the consultation wanted by the President Macky Sall. This deepens the instability and raises concerns on what will happen next. 

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