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Senegal's election campaign ramps up after poll delay

March 20, 2024

Senegalese voters will head to the polls on Sunday, March 24. With campaigning in full swing, we take a look at who's running, what's at stake, and why it matters.

People wear T-shirts showing presidential candidate Khalifa Sall as they hang out of a car and blow vuvuzelas in the colors of the Senegalese flag
Campaigning in Senegal got underway on March 9, 2024 in a two-week sprint to elections on March 24Image: SEYLLOU/AFP

Campaigning is in full swing in Senegal with rallies, motorcades and door-to-door canvassing just days before the presidential elections, which are scheduled for Sunday, March 24.

This year though, because of delays to the polls, which originally were scheduled for February, presidential candidates were given a shorter campaign period than normal. The 19 candidates have just over two weeks in total to convince the West African nation's more than 7 million registered voters to choose them.

Bassirou Diomaye Faye, one of the election frontrunners, has even less time: He had been held in prison since April 2023 and was only freed as part of an amnesty deal last Thursday. This gives him just eight days to meet voters in person.

Amadou Ba — Macky Sall's chosen successor

President Macky Sall's handpicked candidate for the top job is Amadou Ba, who stepped down from his post as prime minister to campaign for presidency. A former economy and foreign minister with a long history in the civil service, the 62-year-old is running on the slogan "Prosperity Shared."

Before Sall abruptly canceled the February elections, Ba was widely expected to win the presidency. But the postponing of elections has stoked people's simmering frustration with the ruling Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition.

Senegal's President Macky Sall stands at a pulpit behind a microphone and shakes hands with Amadou Ba
Senegal's President Macky Sall (r.) handpicked Amadou Ba (l.) to be his successorImage: SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images

Ba "has generated little enthusiasm among voters," writes Amy Niang from the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa in an article for The Conversation. "He symbolizes the status quo. An affluent candidate, Ba has the difficult task of convincing an impoverished electorate that he is up to the task."

Three out of five of Senegal's nearly 18 million people live below the poverty line despite large-scale investments in the country's gas and oil sector.

Bassirou Diomaye Faye — months in jail

Faye was charged with contempt of court, defamation and acts likely to compromise public peace, and was detained in April 2023 after posting a message that was deemed to be critical of the country's justice system.

The 49-year-old tax inspector was relatively unknown until he was backed by the charismatic opposition figure Ousmane Sonko, who was also imprisoned last year and released on Thursday, March 14 alongside Faye.

A campaign billboard show large photos of both Ousmane Sonko and Bassirou Diomaye Faye
Even though Ousmane Sonko is disqualified from running, his portrait (l.) is featured prominently in the election matarial of Bassirou Diomaye Faye (r.)Image: SEYLLOU/AFP

Sonko was seen as the key challenger to President Macky Sall's ruling party but was disqualified from running because of a defamation conviction. He continues to enjoy widespread support:

His release saw thousands of supporters flood the streets of the capital Dakar to celebrate. Chanting "Sonko, we've missed you," people sang and danced as convoys of cars tooted horns.

Campaign posters now show Sonko and Faye side by side with the slogan: "Diomaye is Sonko."

Bassirou Diomaye Faye has promised to tackle corruption and renegotiate contracts between the government and corporations in sectors ranging from energy and mining to fishing.

His backing by Sonko sends a hopeful signal, as Sonko is popular among the urban youth frustrated with the lack of jobs and economic hardship. About 60% of Senegal's population is younger than 35.

Even before Faye's unexpected release from prison, his campaign party were out door-knocking.

"Every evening, between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., we went door to door," Fatou Bintou Sarr, who is in charge of the women's campaign in the commune of Pikine Nord near Dakar, told DW. "We've already covered the whole commune. We now just need to animate people to go to vote."

Hundreds of people wave flags and raise their arms in joy on a darkened street
Supporters celebrate after Ousmane Sonko and the presidential candidate he is backing, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, were released from prisonImage: Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS

Only one female candidate

Others among the 19 candidates include 63-year-old former prime minister Idrissa Seck who came second in 2019, Dakar's two time mayor Khalifa Sall, 68, (unrelated to the president) and 40-year-old entrepreneur Anta Babacar Ngom, who is the only woman running in the race.

"You can't talk about Senegal's development without talking about women and young people," Fatou Sylla, who works for Ngom's campaign, told DW.

"Not only is she a woman, she's also young and an industrialist. We're very proud."

Senegal's first Ramadan election

This is the first time that polls in the mainly Muslim nation have been held during Ramadan, which is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer and introspection.

Iman Moctar Ndiaye from the Liberte 6 Grand Mosque in Senegal's capital Dakar had a word of warning about how people should behave during the campaign period.

"You mustn't break the fast and spend the day driving in motorcades ... hurling insults or performing acts that will compromise social peace and the stability of the country," he told his fellow country people.

Meanwhile, electoral expert El Hadji Saidou Nourou Dia believes that achieving a high turnout will be a challenge against the backdrop of Ramadan.

"But if every Senegalese is motivated ... to contribute to the country's development, fasting shouldn't be an obstacle to going out to vote, because each and every one of us should be accountable for the president we are going to elect," he told DW.

Why the world is looking at Senegal

Senegal has held regular elections since gaining independence from France in 1960 and never experienced a coup d'etat. That made it a bastion of stability in an unstable region rocked by recent military takeovers in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger and hit by a deteriorating security situation and spreading Islamic terrorism.

However, Senegal was plunged into a political crisis when outgoing President Sall decided to defer elections scheduled for February 25 just eight hours before campaigning was to begin, sparking violent protests and arrests.

Men are seen running along a dirt road away from a rising cloud of teargas
Security officials atacked protesters with teargas during a march protesting the election delaysImage: John Wessels/AFP

The Constitutional Council, Senegal's top election authority, subsequently overturned Sall's decision to push the polls back December. It ruled the election had to take place before his term ended on April 2.

For Djibril Gningue, Executive Director of the Platform of Civil Society Actors for the Transparency of Elections in Senegal, the challenge for his country now is to return to holding a "peaceful, honest and transparent ballot that respects the electoral calendar."

Robert Ade in Dakar contributed to this article.

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson

Will an amnesty law help Senegal's political prisoners?

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.