Senegal voted in a tightly contested presidential race after months of unrest

Presidential candidate Amadou Ba and his wife leave a polling station after casting their votes during the presidential elections, in Dakar, Senegal, Sunday, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)


DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Senegalese voted Sunday in a tightly contested presidential race following months of uncertainty and unrest that has tested the West African nation’s reputation as a stable democracy in a region shaken by a wave of coups in recent years.

The election comes after President Macky Sall unsuccessfully tried to postpone the Feb. 25 vote until the end of the year, sparking violent protests. Sall is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term. As a result, the vote took place during Ramadan, the holy month when observant Muslims fast from dawn until dusk.

Vote counting began in the early evening in a tense atmosphere in some parts of the country. In St. Louis, a major fishing town, a crowd booed and threw stones at a government delegation that entered a polling station after the polls closed.

Observers said turnout among the more than 7 million registered voters appeared to be high in the morning, though more precise figures would be available later Sunday. Babacar Gueye, who heads Senegal’s COSCE civil society network of observers, said participation was important to give the election legitimacy.

“At the opening of polling stations today, I have never in the past 15 years seen so many people going to vote,” he told The Associated Press.

Lines formed outside polling stations around the capital Dakar. Roads were quiet as the nation’s elite police force was deployed across the city in armored vehicles, checking voters’ cards. Official results are expected next week, but the leading candidates said they would already know first results Sunday night.

In the run-up to Sunday’s election, opposition leader Ousmane Sonkowas released from prison last week, triggering jubilant celebrations on the streets of Dakar and renewed excitement about the contest. Sonko was barred from running due to a prior conviction for defamation, and is backing his key ally Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was also freed from prison last week.

Khodia Ndiayes, a 52-year-old cook, said 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.”

At the forefront of concerns for many Senegalese voters is the economy, which has been squeezed by high food and energy prices partly driven by the war in Ukraine. Almost a third of Senegal’s youth are unemployed, according to the independent researcher Afrobarometer, driving thousands to risk their lives on dangerous journeys in search of jobs in the West.

“Young people have master’s degrees but they’re selling coffee on the side of the street or are motorbike taxi drivers — there’s no work,” said Cheikh Omar Sy, who works for an international development agency in Dakar.

Senegal has stood apart in a region where the military has seized power from civilian governments in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The election is set to be the nation’s fourth democratic transfer of power since it gained independence from France in 1960.

Despite Senegal’s record, the electoral process over the past year has been marred by violence and unrest, with dozens killed and hundreds of opposition protesters jailed. There are 19 candidates in the race, including one woman, the highest number in the nation’s history, although a couple dropped out to support the team backed by Sonko.

Analysts say no candidate is expected to win more than 50% of the vote, which means a runoff is likely and more coalition building could lie ahead. But by Sunday evening, supporters of the Sonko-Faye team were already celebrating in the streets of Dakar, sitting on car rooftops and setting off fireworks.

Along with Faye, aspirants include Amadou Ba, a former prime minister, Khalifa Sall, a former mayor of Dakar unrelated to the president, and Idrissa Seck, a former prime minister from the early 2000s who was the runner up in the 2019 presidential race.

Ba told voters after casting his ballot that the campaign had been a success and the results would be known by the end of Sunday. Faye also said results would be known in a few hours, expressing confidence their team would win. Sonko promised a resounding victory on his YouTube channel.

Reflecting how the government crackdown on protests has driven up support for the opposition party, Mame Diarra Juey, a 29-year-old administrator, told the AP she had spent a month in prison after police found in her handbag a membership bracelet belonging to the now-dissolved party led by Sonko.

“It really impacted me but I realised there is a huge need to change the system and the regime. Now I’m raising awareness in my community on the importance of voting,” she said.

But for others, Sonko’s fierce rhetoric denouncing corruption and the government’s ties with foreign powers has been alarming.

“I voted for Amadou Ba, and I’m not hiding the fact,” said Ndeye Sylla, 35. “He’s a statesman with a lot of experience. He can take the country very far. Senegal needs peace and serenity. I think Amadou Ba is the only one capable of helping the country.”

In Fatick, a town about 167 kilometers (104 miles) from the capital, lines of mostly women and elderly people formed on the sandy ground outside polling stations in the morning. The army was charged with securing the election outside the capital, and voters had their fingers stained with red ink to ensure no one votes more than once.

“I have done my duty and voted. I am proud to have voted,” said Fodé Ndour, 70, who walked with a cane.


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