As demonstrators battle police outside the National Assembly, Senegal’s standing as a bulwark of democracy in a volatile area is in jeopardy.
Inside, after President Macky Sall canceled an election with just three weeks remaining, lawmakers passed a difficult bill to postpone elections and prolong Sall’s term.
Leading opponent and non-related to the president Khalifa Sall, a former mayor of Dakar, referred to the postponement as a “constitutional coup” and urged citizens to demonstrate against it. His political allies have promised to file a lawsuit.
A different candidate, Thierno Alassane Sall, who is also unrelated, denounced it as “high treason” and asked his followers to demonstrate in front of the National Assembly so that they could “remind MPs to stand on the right side of history”.
For the proposal to pass, 99 out of the 165 deputies, or three-fifths, had to vote in favor of it. In parliament, President Sall’s Alliance for the Republic party is a part of the ruling Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition, which holds a narrow majority.
The atmosphere in the chamber was tense, and there were rumors that some opposition MPs had been chased out by security personnel for attempting to obstruct the proceedings.
105 MPs ultimately supported the proposal in a vote. Originally intended to be a six-month delay, a last-minute amendment expanded it to ten months, ending on December 15.
Mr. Sall restated his intention to not seek public office once more. However, his detractors charge him with either unfairly influencing his successor or attempting to hold onto power.
As soon as he made the historic delay public, demonstrators began to march through Dakar, the capital, demanding a change of heart.
It has long been believed that Senegal is among the most democratically stable countries in West Africa. It is the only nation on the continent of West Africa without a history of military takeovers. It has never postponed a presidential election and has seen three mostly peaceful transitions of power.
When longtime leader Yahya Jammeh refused to acknowledge he had lost an election, Senegalese troops led a West African mission to neighboring The Gambia in 2017. Additionally, President Sall has played a significant role in the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) push to compel military leaders to hold elections and cede power to civilians in a region plagued by coups.
However, Senegal’s democratic credentials are currently in jeopardy, and a constitutional crisis is developing. Analysts state that the nation is about to face a significant test of its judicial independence and electoral integrity.
After what the opposition claims was a calculated attempt to keep them out of the election by accusing their candidates of crimes they had not committed, tensions have been building for more than two years. They even outlawed a significant opposition party.
President Sall stated he was attempting to defuse tensions by postponing the vote, but it doesn’t seem like this is helping so far. The authorities have denied using the legal system for political advantage.
Senegal has entered an uncharted constitutional crisis as a result of the decision, according to Mucahid Durmaz, senior West Africa analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft, who speaks to the BBC.
Elections must be scheduled at least 30 days before the expiration of the current president’s term, according to the constitution. The rule of Sall expires on April 2. Additionally, 80 days before the election, the decree outlining the voting schedule must be made public. There will be debates over the legitimacy of his appointment of a transitional president even if it occurs after April 2.
On Monday, the authorities imposed restrictions on mobile internet services to hinder the ability of protesters to organize by stopping the dissemination of what they described as “hateful and subversive messages” online and endangering public order.
While not everyone can do this, some locals tell the BBC they have been able to avoid the curbs by using wifi and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
The opposition has denounced Walf TV, a private television network, for shutting down its signal because it was “incitement to violence” during its coverage of the protests.
Following the demonstrations, President Sall briefly detained two opposition politicians, among them former prime minister Aminata Touré, who was once a close ally but is now one of his harshest critics.
Opponents worry that this crackdown may spark more political unrest in the nation, which might be hazardous for the entire West African country.
Under Mr. Sall, Senegal’s level of satisfaction with democracy has precipitously decreased. After Mr. Sall took office, more than two-thirds of Senegalese citizens reported being fairly or very satisfied with democracy, according to a 2013 poll by Afrobarometer, a polling organization. Less than half were by 2022.
Because Senegal has a “diverse range of political parties, a robust civil society, and influential religious leaders who step in to mediate political disputes between the politicians,” Durmaz says he does not anticipate the possibility of a military coup.
The Constitutional Council, the judicial body that decides whether candidates have met the requirements to run, had eliminated several of the other candidates who had made the final list to contest the elections.
Among them were Karim Wade, the son of a former president, who was charged with French nationality, and fiery opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who was banned due to a libel conviction. Both claim that the cases brought against them have political motivations.
Mr. Durmaz states that even with the delay, it is unlikely that Mr. Sonko will be able to take part in the election because his party has already nominated Bassirou Faye, who is incarcerated but is still eligible to run, in his place.
Although Mr. Sonko is still barred, tensions are expected to remain high because he has demonstrated his ability to organize his supporters to take to the streets.
Declaring the postponement a “serious threat to our democracy” and a “contempt for the will of the people,” his banned Pastef party has vowed to fight back.
The exclusion of prominent opposition candidates from presidential contests has happened before. 2019 saw Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall both banned from running after serving jail terms for corruption in 2015 and 2018, respectively.
This time, Karim Wade’s party’s accusations of judicial corruption involving the Constitutional Council sparked a parliamentary investigation.
President Sall explained that the postponement of the election was necessary to give the Council and certain lawmakers time to work out their differences.
Mr. Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) has supported the bill, and if its MPs vote with the government, it may pass despite the general outrage over the delay.
However, Wole Ojewale, the Institute for Security Studies’ regional coordinator for Central Africa, based in Dakar, asserts that the delay is unjustified.
“The electoral umpire has not expressed any concerns regarding the president’s ability to conduct the election, and the president is not in control of the electoral process.” Nothing, in my opinion, should sabotage the political process.”
Critics of Mr. Sall speculate that he might have been afraid that Prime Minister Amadou Ba, his preferred successor, might lose the election.
“President Sall’s party is gaining less traction. According to Ojewale, “there are signs that they likely want to see how they can rejig, or probably replace their candidate.”
According to him, there is still time to carry out the election as planned. Durmaz concurs that if this doesn’t happen, the nation might experience widespread unrest and turn into a police state with diminished civil liberties.
The African Union and Ecowas have called for communication. Elections should take place as soon as possible, according to calls from the US, EU, and France.
Durmaz asserts that President Sall would be less vulnerable to outside pressure given his stellar international reputation.
“The popularity of President Sall’s party is declining. Ojewale says that “there are signs that they likely want to see how they can rejig, or probably replace their candidate.”
He says there is still time to hold the election as scheduled. Durmaz agrees that if this doesn’t occur, there may be widespread unrest and the country may become a police state with fewer civil liberties.
Ecowas and the African Union have both demanded communication. The United States, the European Union, and France have all called for early elections.
According to Durmaz, President Sall’s excellent international reputation would make him less susceptible to outside pressure.