Senegal's elections have been postponed. What went wrong in the stronghold of African democracy?



Back in October 2023, we wrote about possible unrest in Senegal related to the election race. However, a few months ago, all the events revolved mainly around one of the candidates — Ousmane Sonko. But the past month has shown how complicated the political situation has actually become in the once strongest democratic state of West Africa. So what happened, and what should we expect?

On 3 February, President Macky Sall postponed the presidential election scheduled for 25 February, announcing it in a televised address to the nation. The argument was the decision of the Constitutional Council of Senegal, which did not allow several politicians to run. In particular, the final list of twenty candidates did not include the imprisoned opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and the son of former Senegalese President Karim Wade — obviously not without the awareness of the head of state. However, according to the official version, President Sall felt that this could undermine the credibility of the list of candidates and decided to postpone the election date.

Moreover, the President did not name a new date, which, according to some opposition groups and civil society representatives, was tantamount to an «institutional coup». The next day, 4 February, the country’s residents took to the streets. The demonstrations spread from the capital of the republic to remote settlements. Of course, the police used tear gas. In addition, mobile internet was shut down in Senegal.

A month later, a new date for the elections, originally scheduled, it should be recalled, for 25 February 2024, has not been set. Instead, Macky Sall announced that he would not set a new election date by himself.

And here it is logical to draw certain conclusions: firstly, the presidential election cannot take place before 2 April, when the official second term of the president officially expires. This is due to certain legal entanglements, as well as a series of religious holidays. Secondly, after 2 April the country will start a period of «institutional vacuum», which will be very beneficial for the incumbent president.

The head of state is not a foolish man. Therefore, he has already managed to delegate this issue to the «seven wise men» of the Constitutional Council to express their opinion on this issue and give an impetus to the national dialogue. So to speak, he has shifted the responsibility.

Except that this very «national dialogue» looks like a «quasi-monologue», because it was boycotted by almost all the candidates selected for the elections. In its turn, a specially created election commission proposed the most optimal, in its opinion, date — 2 June 2024. But here is a problem — who will rule the country from 2 April to 2 June?

To answer this question, let us look at the Senegalese Constitution. It provides for several options as to how a «power vacuum» might arise and what to do in such a situation. However, the current circumstances do not fit any of the options contained therein. In such a case, «the incumbent President of the Republic shall remain in office until his successor takes office». Except that Macky Sall resigned and said: «Not me».

Another sticking point is what will happen to the list of candidates? Will it be updated or supplemented? According to the latest information, it was decided to retain the 19 candidates approved by the Constitutional Council, but with a vague reservation about a new consideration of the candidates. In other words, the national dialogue seems to be paving the way for the re-examination of several dozen cases. No one guarantees that the acceptance of applications for the post of head of state will not be reopened. In such a scenario, the first round of voting on 2 June seems almost impossible.

So, there are a few innovations. On 29 February 2024, an alliance that united the political opposition and the main platforms of civil society called “FIPPU” (“resistance”) emerged. This alliance, purely situational, seems to have a clear objective: to ensure that presidential elections are held before 2 April, the end of the term of the current president, Macky Sall. But just how effective will this «interest group» be when the election race does begin? How durable will their alliance prove to be, and what kind of scenario are they capable of offering?

There are too many questions, but not a single answer. Everything remains in the hands of the Constitutional Council, because, according to article 92 of Senegal’s Basic Law, «the decisions of the Constitutional Council are not subject to appeal. They shall be binding on the public authorities and on all administrative and judicial bodies». But apparently the rules do not apply to the current president.

On 6 March 2024, the «council of wise men» decided to hold elections on 24 March 2024. But just a few hours later it issues a new decision: to schedule the vote for 31 March. In parallel, the incumbent president insists on the first option (24 March) and assures that the date chosen by the head of state is the right one.

Of course, who would want to work at the polling stations on 31 March, the day of a religious holiday? But there is a problem with the first date — the election law provides for 21 days of campaigning before the first round, and this condition cannot be fulfilled due to the late decision. The rule can be bypassed and the campaign period can be shortened, if only all candidates agree, which is unlikely, as many of them are already against the Council’s decision.

And here’s the icing on the cake. What about Sonko, the main opposition to the incumbent? Election = amnesty. And voila — the local media is reporting the release of Sonko and Diomaye on 14 March. This decision could very well mean the resumption of applications for the post of president of the country.

The exact date has not been finalised at the moment. Both locals and candidates do not fully understand when the elections will take place. Moreover, the Senegalese Democratic Party has declared the illegitimacy of the election campaign.

«We are violating the electoral law, which states that there must be at least 80 days between the election date and the decree to convene the electoral body. The president who is elected will be an illegitimate president».

The situation in Senegal is becoming more tense and confusing by the day. It begs the question: is the president of the most democratic country in Black Africa preparing something very far from democracy?