Senegal votes for its next president in long-awaited election

Senegal  AP - Mosa'ab Elshamy
MAR 24, 2024 LISTEN
© AP - Mosa'ab Elshamy

Polls opened Sunday in Senegal, where voters are choosing a new president in a tightly contested race. Seventeen candidates are vying to replace incumbent Macky Sall, who has led the country since 2012 and is not eligible to run again.

Some 7.3 million voters are registered in the West African country, which has often been hailed as one of the most stable democracies in a region that experienced several coups in recent years.

The election is set to be the nation's fourth democratic transfer of power since the Senegal gained independence from France in 1960.

It is the first time in Senegal's history that the incumbent is not on the ballot. 

Voting started at 8am local time and will end at 6pm, with counting to begin immediately afterwards. The first official results are expected within two days.

With a record 17 candidates in the running, a second round looks likely. One of them would need to win more than 50 percent of all votes cast today to win outright. 

Two favourites have emerged: former prime minister Amadou Ba, the ruling party candidate, and Bassirou Diomaye Faye, representing a popular anti-establishment coalition.

Ba is President Sall's preferred successor, while Faye is running in place of opposition figurehead Ousmane Sonko, who was barred from running over a conviction that he disputes. 

Veteran politicians Idrissa Seck, a former prime minister under Sall's predecessor, and Khalifa Sall – a longtime opposition leader and no relation to the president – are also among the frontrunners.

Vote delayed

Hundreds of observers drawn from civil society, the African Union, the Ecowas regional group and the European Union will be monitoring the vote across the country.

The election is being held weeks after Sall unsuccessfully tried to call it off until the end of the year. 

After two consecutive terms in office, Senegal's constitution does not allow him to run a third time. His opponents saw his attempt to postpone the vote as a bid to defy democratic process and stay in power.

After weeks of unrest that left four people dead, the country's top constitutional body stepped in and forced him to schedule the election on 24 March, almost exactly a month after it was originally due to take place.

The new date falls during Ramadan, the holy month when many Muslims fast from dawn until dusk.

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

The eventual winner will face the difficult task of steering Senegal out of its political crisis and managing revenues from oil and gas reserves that are shortly to start production – while alleviating the economic hardship and widespread youth unemployment that drives thousands to risk their lives in search of jobs in Europe.

(with newswires)