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What to know about Senegal’s wide-open elections

DAKAR, Senegal — Voters in Senegal cast their ballots Sunday in what is among the most wide-open elections in the country’s history, following weeks of uncertainty about when the election would take place and months of confusion about who would be allowed to run.

For the first time in Senegal’s history, the incumbent president is not on the ballot. Instead, the top contenders in the field of 19 candidates include President Macky Sall’s handpicked successor, Amadou Ba, a former prime minister; and Bassirou Diomaye Faye, a former tax collector. Faye has the backing of Ousmane Sonko, a popular rival of Sall’s barred by courts from running himself.

Initial results showed Faye in the lead, sparking cheerful celebrations in the streets of Dakar, where supporters waved flags and set off fireworks following a day of voting that went largely smoothly.

Sall last year ruled out running for a third term — which would have been widely viewed as unconstitutional — but then shocked many at home and abroad with his decision last month to indefinitely delay the elections, marking another first in Senegal’s history. He backed down following a decision by the constitutional court, and the elections Sunday will be held less than a month after the original election date, which had been Feb. 25.

“The brutal, illegal way that Sall delayed the elections put our country at an impasse that we were only able to get out of because of the courts,” said Maurice Soudieck Dione, a political science professor at Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis, Senegal. “And now we are going to have a very, very tight election.”

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday, then a runoff election will be held next month.

What is the international significance of Senegal’s election?

Senegal is in a region beset by recent military coups, including in neighboring Mali in 2020 and 2021 and Guinea in 2021. More recently, coups in Burkina Faso in 2022 and Niger last year have come amid growing anti-Western sentiment.

In that context, Senegal — a coastal nation of 18 million — had become an increasingly important Western ally and bright spot for democracy. Since its independence from France in 1960, Senegal has had four transitions of power and no military takeovers. But concerns emerged among domestic and international observers in recent years as Sall became increasingly repressive, including jailing journalists and opponents. Dozens of protesters died during violence that followed trials against Sonko, which his supporters said were politically motivated.

But Mucahid Durmaz, a senior analyst at the risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said that “the turmoil if anything proves Senegal’s strong democratic culture.”

“There was a president with increasingly strongman tendencies,” he said. “But also a vibrant civil society and strong institutions that kept him in check. It is important that the elections go smoothly and transparently, but overall, I am optimistic.”

How do the main candidates differ?

Bassirou Faye, 43, is an anti-establishment figure who is popular with Senegal’s youths and has been boosted by his close connection with Sonko. He has campaigned on renegotiating Senegal’s lucrative oil and gas contracts, reconsidering its relations with France, and reviewing its currency, which is pegged to the euro and shared by several other countries in West Africa. Faye had been jailed on charges including defamation and contempt of court but was freed this month as part of an amnesty deal.

In an interview with Reuters, Faye declined to say, if he prevails, what role Sonko might play in a future administration.

Amadou Ba, 62, previously served as the economy and foreign minister before being named prime minister in 2022. A member of the ruling party, he is seen as someone who would continue the policies put in place by Sall during his 12 years in office. Durmaz described him as a “sensible politician” and a “behind-the-scenes technocrat who is used to solving problems but now finds himself on the public stage.”

What is Macky Sall’s legacy?

Sall’s 12 years in office have been marked by dramatic investments in infrastructure, including a new rail system, a new airport and the creation of a city, Diamniadio, which Sall says will be a second urban hub outside of the capital, Dakar. Senegal’s government also signed lucrative contracts to exploit the country’s oil and gas reserves, which analysts say will dramatically increase the country’s GDP in the coming years.

On the world stage, Sall has become a global champion for the right of Senegal and other developing nations to use their resources, including fossil fuels, to industrialize and develop.

Sall, who served as the chair of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, has also made Senegal an increasingly important global player, said Alioune Tine, a rights expert and founder of the AfrikaJom Center, a Dakar-based research organization. “Macky is the darling of world powers,” Tine said. “Putin, Macron, the Americans, all of them … he reinforced a tradition of strong Senegalese diplomacy.”

But in recent years, Sall’s legacy has been marred by the increasing repression. Senegal dropped 55 places to 104th on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders between 2021 and 2023. Sall has also been widely criticized for not ruling out a third term earlier; for his treatment of Sonko, who was under house arrest for months before being freed under the amnesty deal; and the decision to delay the elections.

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