Senegal Presidential Race: Election a Day Away

Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray
Sébastien is a published journalist and historicist with over six years of experience in freelance journalism and research. His primary expertise is in African conflict and politics, with additional specialization in Israeli/Palestinian and Armenia/Azerbaijan conflicts. Sébastien serves as the deputy desk chief for Africa.

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What’s Happening

Senegal’s long anticipated election is now a day away, to be held on Sunday, March 24th. As the race is close to concluding, two front runners have become apparent. The ruling party’s candidate, President Macky Sall’s chosen successor, Prime Minister Amadou Ba is one. Bassirou Diomaye Faye, one of many opposition candidates, has emerged as the other of the two front runners for the election.

Prime Minister Amadou Ba speaking after he was named the official successor for President Macky Sall (Photo from AFP/Seyllou).

The election has high stakes, with a potential opposition victory representing a significant shift in Senegal. Bassirou is running on a Afrocentric platform which will see Senegal renegotiate mining and energy contracts, re-examine it’s relationship with France (Senegal’s former colonial power), as well as potentially depart from the regional currency, the West African Franc, a currency which some view as a remnant of France’s colonization.

A Popular Opposition

Bassirou enjoys the support of Ousmane Sonko, the primary opposition leader. Sonko had been thought to be the largest threat to the ruling party, having come third in the nations last Presidential election and his party witnessing high levels of support in following parliamentary and local elections. However, Sonko was barred by the Senegalese Constitutional Court from running in the election, and thus he named Bassirou as his successor.

Sonko and Bassirou witness extensive levels of support in Senegal’s youth. Approximately half of Senegal’s population is 25 or below, and the nation witnesses high levels of youth unemployment, as well as lower levels of development in typical oppositionist areas, representing opportunity for the duo.

The two were freed only last week from prison after having spent several months each in jail on charges that they, and supporters, say are politically motivated. They were freed under President Sall’s Amnesty Law, which sought to free those bearing politics based charges since 2021. Alongside Sonko and Bassirou was freed a number of people who were arrested during protests, including in recent protests in February.

A photo of pro-Sonko protestors gathering in celebration of his release (Photo from Seyllou/AFP).

Sonko and Bassirou were greeted by crowds of thousands when they were released late on the night of the 14th. Questions had previously been raised if Bassirou would be able to drum up the same support as Sonko. While they both came from Sonko’s PASTEF party, Bassirou was much lesser known.

Those questions have been answered as the pair’s supporters have popularized the motto “Sonko is Diomaye, Diomaye is Sonko,” connecting support for Sonko to support for Bassirou.

The Ruling Party

Senegal is typically understood to be one of the most stable countries within west Africa. It is one of the only nations in Africa which has never experienced a coup, and despite having some heated protests over the years, its democratic institutions are typically regarded as intact. This stability is particularly valued as west Africa has been the site of a number of coups in the last several years, including in nations Senegal borders.

PM Ba is riding on a lot of this same sentiment, running on a platform of continuity and stability, as well as claiming he will create one million jobs within five years, something of desperate need in the nation.

A rally of supporters for Prime Minister Amadou Ba (Photo from AFP).

PM Ba has referred to Sonko and Bassirou as “bandits,” offering himself as “greater peace and prosperity.”

A Problematic Election

PM Ba faces a number of large problems in his race, although Bassirou faces some as well.

President Sall and the ruling party have suffered in popularity due to recent political happenings in Senegal. In early February, the government attempted to delay the election, which was originally set for February 25th, for 10 months until December 15th. The government stated it was delaying the election pending a parliamentary inquiry into the independence of two of the judges on the Constitutional Court. The inquiry was opened after two key opposition candidates, Ousmane Sonko and Karim Wade, were barred from running for President by the Constitutional Court, who presides over the creation of the candidates list.

Karim Wade, another key opposition candidate and son of former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, was barred due to his dual-citizenship with France. Karim renounced his French citizenship prior to running for election, however, and so presently he only holds Senegalese citizenship. Despite him only holding Senegalese citizenship at the time of the candidates list creation, the Constitutional Court still opted to bar him from running.

Following the vote to delay the election, protests broke out nationwide. There were hefty police crackdowns, with several hundred people being arrested, and three people dying during clashes with police.

On February 15th the Constitutional Court struck down the governments delay, ruling it “unconstitutional”. They stated that, while returning to the February 25th timeline would be “impossible”, that the government should seek to hold the election “as soon as possible”. The court also ordered that President Sall must step down from office on April 2nd, the original date of which his Presidential term is to end. While the President had stated he was not seeking a third term, and named PM Ba as his successor to run for election, under the government plan to delay the election until December 15th he would have remained in office until then.

A photo of pro-Sonko and pro-Bassirou protestors (Photo from AFP).

President Sall conceded to the court, agreed to step down after his term end, and agreed to hold elections as soon as possible. However, for several weeks after the election delay was struck down, election dates were not set, bringing yet more protests from civilians and anger from opposition groups.

In an attempt to mitigate the crisis, President Sall opened a National Dialogue Commission which was to hold talks between him and opposition groups. However, the majority of opposition groups refused to participate in the commission. Regardless, the commission produced a potential election date: June 2nd. As previously stated, this election date was ruled unconstitutional by the Senegalese Constitutional Council. Opposition groups opposed the June 2nd date, demanding a date that was before President Sall’s term end on April 2nd, not after.

Following this, election dates were set for March 24th. They were set a week into March, leaving less than a month for candidates to carry out campaign processes before the election.

President Sall has denied wrongdoing in his attempts to delay the election. The government stated the delay was in the interest of holding “an open national dialogue to bring together the conditions for a free, transparent, and inclusive election,” however opponents have accused President Sall and the ruling party of attempting to cling onto power and delay an election they fear losing.

Senegalese President Macky Sall pictured at the G20 summit in 2023 (Photo from Bloomberg).

Despite Senegal being in an ongoing election campaign, the streets have been comparatively quiet. While campaigning is ongoing, so is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began on March 10th. Senegal’s 95% Muslim population is retaining most of its energy for sunset, with them having to fast from sunrise to sunset, representing challenging campaigning processes for the elections candidates.

Although Sonko and Bassirou enjoy extensive support with Senegal’s youth, a good thing in a country where approximately half of the population is aged 25 or below, the majority of Senegal’s registered voters are 35 or older, meaning large portions of the base of Sonko and Bassirou’s supporters will be unable to actually vote when it comes time for the election.

Karim Wade, the other key opposition candidate who was barred from the election by the Constitutional Court, has thrown his support together with his party, the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS), behind Bassirou’s candidacy. Notably, the PDS has typically enjoyed support from the Mourides, Senegal’s most influential Islamic brotherhood.

If no candidate garners 50% or more of the vote in the first round, the voting will have to go to a second round, giving a lot of potential power to former Dakar Mayor (the capital of Senegal) Khalifa Sall (who is not related to President Sall), as well as former Thies Mayor Idrissa Seck, who are likely to be runner-ups to Bassirou and PM Ba. If the race is close, an endorsement by either candidate for a second round could prove crucial.