Democracy forced Senegal’s President Macky Sall to hold the election he wanted to postpone – Rajika Jayatilake reports

Leaders of governments across the world remember those who voted them into power only when they face elections. Elections are a time of people power when incumbent governments are removed or secure a renewed mandate to rule again. As Abraham Lincoln – the former US president – once said, “elections belong to the people.”

Since it’s such a consequential event, no country likes its elections to be messed with – as  dramatically unfolded recently, in Senegal.

Senegal has long been considered one of the region’s most stable democracies sans military coups. Records reveal three mainly peaceful handovers of power with no delays in holding presidential elections.

In fact, Senegal was considered the moral leader of the region when Senegalese troops led the West African mission to neighbouring Gambia to coerce longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh to accept his election loss and hand over power to his successor.

Senegalese President Macky Sall was also a steady hand in the push by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to coerce military leaders to conduct elections and enable takeovers by civilian rulers. ECOWAS is a regional political and economic union comprising 15 member states.

However, all that changed in February when Sall plunged Senegal into political turmoil. He sparked a constitutional crisis by announcing the postponement of the country’s presidential election from 25 February to 15 December.

Senegal’s constitution re­quires that elections are held at least 30 days before the end of the incumbent president’s mandate, which in this case was 2 April.

The announcement, which came like a bolt from the blue only weeks before election day, blindsided the nation. Opposition leaders denounced it as a ‘constitutional coup’ and tried to block a bill intending to legitimise the postponement.

Chaos descended on Senegal’s National Assembly as oppo­sition members were forcibly removed by police who also fired tear gas at protestors who gathered outside the building. Subsequently, the opposition challenged the delay in the Supreme Court.

Sall’s announcement triggered protests across the country, which was already unnerved by months of political tensions that began in March 2021 when opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was arrested over rape allegations. This led to street protests and riots, which left 13 dead. Thousands took to the streets at the time and internet access was restricted to control the protests.

Public demonstrations began again in June last year when Sonko was prosecuted – and at least 15 people were killed during the protests. In addition, 56 people were killed by security forces between March 2021 and August 2023 but no one has been prosecuted for these killings as yet.

It was against this backdrop of simmering tension that Sall announced he had revoked the rules requiring elections to be held every five years.

However, there was no clarification if Senegal’s constitution allowed a sitting president to eliminate requirements effectively to hold an election through a decree. He was first elected for a seven year term in 2012 and then a five year period in 2019.

Although Sall said he had no intention of running for a third term – with the constitution not allowing it – people feared he was gearing up for it especially since he cracked down so hard on the opposition in the recent past.

The international community also watched in consternation and the US Department of State noted that the post­ponement ran “contrary to Senegal’s strong democratic tradition.” France, the US and the EU called for an election as soon as possible.

ECOWAS commented indirectly that the postponement of the election may be unconstitutional. And the African Union (AU) said the election should be held as soon as possible in an environment of “transparency, peace and national harmony.”

Previously, S&P Global Ratings warned that prolonged political uncertainty in Senegal could potentially jeopardise the implementation of ‘Plan Senegal Emergent,’ which seeks to attract private investment and stabilise government revenue.

Following the opposition seeking a ruling from the country’s apex judicial body, the Senegalese Supreme Court ruled that Sall’s attempt to postpone the election and extend his term by almost one year was unconstitutional.

As a result, Sall was left with little choice but to revoke his earlier stance and agree with the country’s top constitutional body to hold the election on 24 March, before the end of his term in power.

“What we are looking forward to now is fair, just and transparent elections. That is the last duty that President Macky Sall has to fulfil,” observed former prime minister Dr. Aminata Touré, ahead of the election. She served under Sall and later, switched to the opposition.

The international community praised the resilience of Senegal’s democracy and strength of its democratic institutions. Following the election outcome, Senegal’s reputation as a bastion of democracy in an unstable region prevails.