Senegal plunged into political turmoil this week after parliament approved a controversial bill to postpone presidential elections that were less than two weeks away. The decision came shortly after President Macky Sall, who is seeking a third term, abruptly called off campaign events on Friday. Opposition leaders and activists decried the move as an “electoral coup” and took to the streets of the capital Dakar to protest.
Election Delay Sparks Outrage
On Sunday, Senegal’s National Assembly voted to push back the election until December 2024. The government says the delay is needed due to problems with voter rolls and lack of time to fix errors, but critics see it as a blatant attempt by Sall to extend his rule. Popular musician and activist Thierno Alassane Sall slammed the president for “joining the ranks of coup plotters,” while other opposition figures called for nationwide demonstrations.
The election postponement comes despite repeated assurances from Sall that the vote would go ahead as planned on February 25. Candidates had already begun campaigning when the president abruptly canceled scheduled events last Friday night, just hours before the official start of the campaign season on Saturday. The last-minute reversal and lack of consultation fueled speculation that Sall was laying the groundwork to cling to power beyond his allotted two terms, which expire in April.
|President Macky Sall cancels campaign launch event
|National Assembly approves election delay to Dec 2024
|Opposition protests erupting in Dakar, other cities
|Regional body ECOWAS urges return to electoral calendar
The opposition alliance has urged supporters to take part in nationwide protests, vowing to make the country “ungovernable” until Sall reinstates the original election date. Street demonstrations erupted on Monday in Dakar and other cities, leading to clashes with riot police who fired tear gas at rock-throwing youths. A heavy security presence remains on the streets as localized protests continue in flashpoint neighborhoods.
At the same time, the government has moved aggressively to restrict the flow of information, shutting off internet and broadcasting signals for periods of time. Press freedom groups condemned the communications blackout, saying it raises questions about the Sall administration’s commitment to democracy.
Third Term Ambitions Loom Large
President Sall was elected in 2012 and won re-election for a second term in 2019. The constitution bars him from seeking another consecutive mandate, and he had repeatedly promised to step down after his tenure ends in April 2024. “I will proudly hand over power to my successor,” Sall said last year.
But over the past year, speculation mounted that the president was planning to reset the clock by delaying elections long enough to run again on a technicality. Critics point to the example of Alpha Conde in neighboring Guinea, who engineered a controversial third term in 2020 by pushing through constitutional changes before being ousted in a coup d’etat in 2021.
Sall may be hoping to avoid Conde’s fate by using bureaucratic pretexts to stall the vote rather than overt constitutional tinkering. Senegal has traditionally been one of West Africa’s most stable and robust democracies, making an outright power grab more difficult. Postponing elections due to alleged issues with the voter roll maintains a veneer of procedural fairness.
But the opposition sees the move as an insult to Senegal’s democratic traditions. “Macky Sall has spurned the will of the people…there is no doubt he aims to hold onto power,’’ said activist Guy Marius Sagna. Sagna and other civil society leaders have called for continued peaceful resistance until the original election date is restored.
International Pressure Mounts as Crisis Deepens
Key players in the international community have also voiced concerns over Sall’s efforts to extend his rule. ECOWAS, a West African regional bloc, issued a sharply worded statement this week urging Senegalese political leaders to “urgently reestablish” the pre-existing electoral calendar. The United Nations and United States have also called for maintaining the February 25 election date.
However, Sall appears intent on plowing forward with the delayed timetable approved by parliament. The electoral commission formally canceled the original vote over the weekend. Campaigning may potentially resume in the coming months ahead of the new Dec 2024 date, although firm details have not been announced. The opposition has already declared they will boycott any election held after April, when Sall’s term officially ends.
With neither side showing signs of backing down, the political impasse looks set to intensify. The opposition hopes mass protests will eventually force the president to reconsider, but the government has shown its willingness to retaliate with force. Sall also likely retains support within the military ranks, meaning prospects for compromise are dim.
Senegal’s reputation as a pillar of democratic stability in volatile West Africa is under threat. The coming weeks and months will prove decisive in determining whether one of Africa’s most promising young democracies can pull back from the brink – or risks plunging deeper into the abyss of authoritarian rule plaguing the continent. Much hangs in the delicate balance as the nation’s future now hangs by a thread.
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