Senegal is a country that lies on the western coast of Africa near the equatorial line. Over seventeen million people live in the country, with over 3 million people living in the capital city of Dakar and its metro area. The country held mayoral and legislative elections at the end of January to see what is in store for the ruling party’s political future. These mayoral elections had been postponed since 2019, in part because of COVID-19, giving the Senegalese public their first official opinion on the government in about four years.
Senegalese citizens headed to the polls on January 23rd and showed strong support for opposition parties in key cities. For example, a former third-place candidate in the 2019 presidential election, Ousmane Sonko, won the election to become the next mayor of Ziguinchor, a city in the south of the country. This shows that opposition candidates were willing to collaborate in order to win contested seats from the incumbent party, United in Hope, which is led by the current president, Mack Sall.
A Precedent of Peaceful Elections in Senegal
Senegal first held elections in 1978, which marked the first time parties could be elected after the single-party rule of the Socialist party since independence in 1960. Senegal has had peaceful elections and transfers of power throughout most of its independent history. The choice by the Socialist party to allow more freedom in creating political parties to more than three prompted the start of Senegal’s rapid growth of political parties into the large number it has today. More than 100 different parties have become more involved in the electoral process due to the different electoral methods for a party to get representatives elected to the legislature.
Transition to Multiparty Elections
Following the expansion of political parties, the Senegalese Democratic Party came to power in 2000 led by Abdoulaye Wade. Wade moved away from much of the policies of the Senegalese Socialist Party towards privatization and market reforms in order to improve the economic output of Senegal. During his time in office, he worked to consolidate power by trying to lengthen the presidential term limits and creating political positions for his allies. One example of that is his creation of a short-lived senate for Senegal which had indirect elections for senators, thus allowing for fellow party members to get elected into the legislature. Also, in 2012, he was partially successful in reinforcing his grasp on power: Senegal’s highest court ruled that Wade would be allowed to run for a third term despite the 2001 constitution enforcing a limit of two terms. Wade argued the third term was needed given that the 2001 constitution, which came into effect a year after his election, had shortened his second term from 7 to 5 years
However, this constitutional crisis did not occur given that Wade then lost the 2012 election to the current president, Macky Sall. As the former prime minister in the legislature, Sall has been a significant figure in Senegal’s politics. He was a member of Wade’s administration but created his own party, United in Hope, in 2008 after leaving the Senegalese Democratic Party following a rift between himself and Wade over accusations of corruption and nepotism.
United in Hope has been the dominant party throughout the past two legislative elections since Wade lost power to President Sall. The party is centered around liberal democratic policies as Senegal continues to move away from its origin as a socialist country. Sall has done work to address corruption, and improve economic conditions as the country is currently ranked 105th in GDP. Much of what Sall has done has been in opposition to the power consolidation seen by Wade. Most notably, Sall was successful in petitioning the legislature in 2016 to make changes to the constitution which would again reduce the length of each presidential term from 7 to 5 years after it had been amended in 2008. Sall was able to achieve this victory due to the strong support he has from both the political elite and the public for shortening the presidential terms. Part of the reason why Sall felt comfortable enough to reduce the term limits despite it obviously shortening his hold on power is that he is reportedly planning on running for a third term, just like Wade did before him.
Electoral Changes Cause Concerns
Due to the elections’ postponements, and on top of delays due to the pandemic, Senegal’s democratic process has largely been frozen since 2019, meaning that many mayors are past their electoral limit. However, as most mayors are part of the ruling national party, they had the support from above to run for re-election in late January. The last legislative election was in 2017, giving the United in Hope party the majority of the seats.
Senegal, like other countries, has seen the strength of elections become weaker due to the dilution of certain electoral laws, which have once again restricted the opportunity for a diverse number of parties to run in elections. Due to electoral reforms introduced in 2018 that increased the number of signatures needed for a candidate to run, parties are now expected to gather many more signatures from different regions of the country. While this eliminates many of the smaller parties from participating in elections, it is intended to assist voters by giving them a simpler ballot with fewer choices. As a result, money and social capital allow the bigger parties with much more funding and resources to continue to run for elections. These changes received condemnation from electoral watchdog groups like Freedom House and sparked protests from the Senegalese public.
As a result of the waning confidence the people have in Sall, United by Hope lost seats to the opposition candidates in major cities such as Dakar and Ziguinchor. In Ziguinichor was where riots occurred last year after now-mayor, Ousmane Sonko, was charged with rape; protestors believed the charges were arbitrary and were a result of interference in the judiciary by the president. Sonoko is part of a coalition called “Yewwi askan wi” (meaning “liberate the people” in Wolof), which supports moving away from the franc as the national currency and enforcing taxation of Senegalese elites. Given that Sonko placed third in the 2019 presidential elections, he could be in a strong position to run in 2024 barring criminal charges.
A Referendum on the President’s Performance
The election on January 23rd proved that many Senegalese citizens support oppositional parties over President Sall’s party. With more legislative elections in June and the presidential election occurring in 2024, it shows that for Senegalese citizens, Macky Sall has not lived up to expectations as of yet.
The mayoral elections were seen as a weathervane for future elections this year and whether voters agreed with Sall’s leadership, such as the voter lists being reviewed and purged and calls after candidates were charged with crimes leading up to the election. However, there was still a large turnout with 6 million people voting on the 23rd. With both of the major cities, Ziguinchor and Dakar, going to the opposition coalition, the United in Hope party will have to hope for a strong change of opinion on Sall or a strong turnout from the rest of the country if it is to remain at the top of Senegalese politics. In the long run, having the elections finally occur was good to restore faith in voting after the past few years of stagnation.