Vote counting almost done in Senegal’s delayed presidential election

Vote counting is almost done in Senegal after a delayed presidential election that many hope will bring change after a turbulent political period that has triggered violent anti-government protests and boosted support for the opposition.

More than seven million of the country’s over 17 million people were registered to vote in Sunday’s election.

Nineteen contenders are vying to replace President Macky Sall, stepping down after a second term marred by unrest over the prosecution of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and concerns that Sall wanted to extend his mandate past the constitutional limit.

The incumbent was not on the ballot for the first time in Senegal’s history. His ruling coalition has picked former prime minister Amadou Ba, 62, as its candidate.

Sonko, in jail until recently, was disqualified from the race because of a defamation conviction. He is backing the co-creator of his now-dissolved PASTEF party, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was also detained almost a year ago on charges including defamation and contempt of court.

An amnesty law passed this month allowed their release days before the vote.

He and his colleague Diomaye have campaigned together under the banner “Diomaye is Sonko”.

Besides Ba and Faye, Dakar’s former Mayor Khalifa Sall, veteran politician Idrissa Seck, former Prime Minister Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne, a close ally of President Sall Aly Ngouille Ndiaye and entrepreneur and political newcomer Anta Babacar Ngom — the sole woman among the candidates — are all a part of the presidential race.

To avoid a run-off election, one candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the vote. While official results are expected next week, in previous elections candidates have announced their predictions on the same evening as the vote.

Reporting from Dakar, Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque said it was an “unusual” election.

“There is both anticipation like you would have in any election; there is an element of fear and unknown because this is the first election in the last 12 years where President Macky Sall is not in the running … and there is an element of excitement, especially among those young, first-time voters.

“This is an election like no other and it’s very important, especially for young people.”

‘Voting for change’

Lines formed outside polling stations around Dakar on Sunday. Roads were quiet as the nation’s elite police force was deployed across the city in armoured vehicles, checking voters’ cards.

“I am so happy to be able to exercise my right to vote as a Senegalese citizen,” voter Thiaba Camara Sy, from the organisation Demain Senegal (Tomorrow Senegal), told Al Jazeera at a polling station in Dakar.

“This is something that we have won because the risk was high of the election being delayed until who knows when, so I’ve been queuing for two hours but I’m happy.”

In the ocean-facing neighbourhood of Dakar’s Ngor, fisherman Alioune Samba, 66, said he was voting for the change everyone wants.

“Food, water, school; everything is expensive with the low income we have in Senegal,” the father of three told Reuters news agency.

People wait to cast their votes outside a polling station during the presidential elections, in Dakar, Senegal, Sunday, March 24
People wait to cast their votes outside a polling station during the presidential elections, in Dakar, Senegal [Mosa’ab Elshamy/AP]

Khodia Ndiayes, a 52-year-old cook, told the Associated Press news agency she picked Faye on the ballot because she wanted Sonko to win.

“I’m proud to have voted,” she said. “We need a new president because life is expensive, the economy is bad and we need better schools.”

Al Jazeera’s Haque said it appeared that a lot of people have come out to vote.

“It’s interesting who those people are: a lot of young men but also women, key in this election because women make up a substantial part of the electorate in Senegal,” he said.

Faye versus Ba

After casting his vote, Ba called for peace and said he wished for the Senegalese people to find out who their next president is soon and to calmly resume their daily lives. He said he was “very, very, very confident” of his chances of winning.

Most of Sonko’s supporters are expected to vote for Faye, analysts say.

“The population is choosing between continuation and rupture,” Faye said after voting, urging contenders to accept the result.

In these elections, “the two political camps stand on opposite sides of the political spectrum”, Mucahid Durmaz, a senior political risk analyst for West Africa at Verisk Maplecroft, told Al Jazeera.

He noted that while outgoing President Sall and his ruling coalition candidate Ba favour economic liberalisation policies, opposition figure Sonko and his chosen candidate Faye plan to introduce a new currency and renegotiate contracts with oil and gas operators in the country.

“The issue here is that despite the economic boom that the country has witnessed over the years under President Sall, it’s not really facilitated a wider socioeconomic development for the country’s youthful population,” Durmaz said.

Economic issues

Unemployment is another key issue in the election.

Frustration at the lack of job opportunities has spurred support for Sonko and his backed candidate Faye, particularly among the youth.

The share of young Senegalese not in employment, education or training stood at 35 percent in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic further squeezed the job market.

Besides unemployment, the rising cost of living spurred by Russia’s war in Ukraine and the appreciation of the United States dollar have undermined support for current ruling Senegalese authorities.

The launch of oil and gas production later in 2024 has also raised questions about whether the natural resource wealth will benefit the wider population and create jobs.

The Sonko-backed opposition coalition has promised to renegotiate energy contracts to maximise revenues, while Ba is running on the slogan “Prosperity Shared”.

‘Calm’ voting process

While the elections come amid frustrations over a fragile economy, according to election observers, the voting process has been relatively peaceful.

Hundreds of election observers from civil society, the African Union, the regional group the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the European Union were on the ground monitoring the fairness of the vote.

“From the opening this morning, our observers – and it’s a partial piece of the picture – we have seen that there are quite some queues in front of the offices, which shows that people are mobilised to go and use their right to vote and express their views for the future of Senegal,” Malin Bjork, from the EU election observer mission to Senegal, told Al Jazeera.

“Election offices are functioning well. It’s calm; there is serenity in the process, according to our observations,” she added.

“I think today is a very great day for us,” the Aar Sunu Election (Protect Our Election) group, led by Dr Abdoulaye Bousso, told Al Jazeera in Dakar.

When Sall announced the cancellation of the election in February, there was an uproar from civil society in the country, including Bousso’s group.

“We fought to have this election day happen and we are very proud to see the big mobilisation of the Senegalese people.

“For us, it’s the victory of the Senegalese democracy.”

Source: Aljazeera

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