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Senegal heads for wide open presidential poll Sunday

Dakar, Senegal | March 20, 2024, Wednesday @ 07:09 in World » AFRICA | By: AFP | Views: 2028
Senegal heads for wide open presidential poll Sunday

(FILES) Senegalese presidential candidate Khalifa Sall (C) greets supporters during a tour of several districts of the capital as part of his political campaign for the 2024 presidential election, in Dakar, on March 9, 2024. Senegal is set to elect its new president on March 24, 2024 and end weeks of crisis triggered by the delay to the poll, after the top constitutional body agreed to the new date suggested by Senegalese President Macky Sall. (Photo by SEYLLOU / AFP)

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Seven million Senegalese are due to head to the polls on Sunday to vote in a wide open presidential election following weeks of chaos and uncertainty.

Whoever comes out on top will be tasked with steering the traditionally stable West African nation out of years of turmoil, and managing revenues from recently discovered oil and gas reserves.

The 18 men and one woman have until Friday to finish a raucous two-week campaigning period, which was dramatically shortened after a last-minute change to the election date.

The election race was also fired up by a rapidly-passed amnesty law that led last week to the release from prison of Bassirou Diomaye Faye and the charismatic Ousmane Sonko, figureheads of the anti-establishment opposition.

Although Faye is Sonko's deputy, the former is on the ballot because the latter has been barred from standing.

In voters' eyes, they come as a package deal.

They plan "to share resources fairly. What belongs to Senegal should be left to Senegal, that's patriotism," said 38-year-old teacher Gnima Mane in the southern city of Ziguinchor.

For the first time in Senegal, the incumbent will not feature on the ballot, with the candidate selected by outgoing President Macky Sall's governing coalition up against 18 rivals.

In the central town of Diourbel, many people have faith in Sall's candidate, Amadou Ba.

"We have new streetlights, roads and a grass stadium," said high school student Ousseynou Diene during a rally for Ba.

- Wide open race - 

Senegal has traditionally been considered a beacon of democracy and stability in coup-hit West Africa.

But Sall's last-minute decision in February to delay the presidential vote due later that month sparked unrest that left four people dead.

Sall, who had won praise abroad by renouncing a possible third term bid in 2023, said he called off the vote over fears the ballot would not go well.

After weeks of political crisis, the country's top constitutional body stepped in and forced him to reset the date to March 24.

Ba and Faye, who has pitched himself as the "candidate for system change" and "left-wing pan-Africanism", both claim they will be able to win in the first round.

Khalifa Sall, the former mayor of the capital Dakar, has also been mentioned as an outsider.

But the election remains wide open.

The race is "the most open" of the 12 presidential votes held under universal suffrage since Senegal gained independence from France in 1960, said Sidy Diop, deputy editor of Le Soleil daily. 

- Sovereigntist rhetoric -

The recent unrest witnessed in Senegal was the latest chapter in various episodes of violence since 2021, triggered partly by the stand-off between the firebrand Sonko and the state.

Economic and social tensions, as well as concerns that Macky Sall would run for a third term, also fuelled the unrest that left dozens killed and hundreds arrested.

In a bid to end the latest crisis, the government passed an amnesty law and released hundreds of prisoners, including Sonko and Faye.

The pair are hoping to harness Sonko's charisma and popular appeal in a country where half of the population are under 20.

Sonko has drawn a passionate following with Senegal's youth through his sovereigntist rhetoric, as well as attacks on elites, multinationals and former colonial ruler France.

"The greatest danger facing Senegal today is Amadou Ba," Sonko said during a press conference the day after his release, denouncing the former prime minister as a "billionaire civil servant" who "will be the president of foreign countries". 

- 'Share the prosperity' - 

At a recent rally, Ba urged people to vote "for experience and competence instead of entrusting the reins of the country to adventurers".

His candidacy has not been smooth sailing, though, with some dissent coming from within his own camp.

Ba says he wants to "share the prosperity" generated by Sall's development plan and has pledged to create one million jobs in five years.

But Sall's legacy also includes persistent poverty, with unemployment officially at 20 percent and thousands making the perilous voyage to Europe each year.

Senegal is due to join the ranks of oil and gas producers this year, but some fear that a newfound rush of petrodollars would lead to corruption, instability and even greater poverty.

Experts have warned of the potential for flaring tensions on Sunday, particularly if Ba wins in the first round or Faye fails to reach the second.

Provisional results could be known overnight.

© Agence France-Presse 

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