On Sunday March 24, the Senegalese will vote in the first round of the presidential election. Voters will have 17 candidates to choose from, after two contenders withdrew. All campaigned briefly, but calmly. President Macky Sall, after two mandates and twelve years in power, is not running again, as required by the limit imposed by the Constitution. In the days to come, the country will therefore experience its third democratic change since independence, a rare outcome in West Africa.

Painted in this way, the picture gives the image of a serene and peaceful Senegal, now firmly ensconced in a democratic tradition. The appearance is deceptive. Because this vote is rather the, for the moment, peaceful outcome of a process marked by tensions, harshly repressed demonstrations, temptations to manipulate institutions and unbridled populism. In Senegal, these painful deliverances have been a sort of tradition since the election of Abdoulaye Wade in 2000. But this election will remain in people’s minds as exceptionally harsh and crucial for the future of the country. The real uncertainty over the name of the winner and the violence of recent months mean that civil peace is not yet completely assured. Senegal is still waiting.

The fault lies primarily with Macky Sall. After his re-election in 2019, the president long refused to say that he would not serve a third term. On the contrary, for years, he maintained the ambiguity, his entourage going out of his way to point out that, according to them, the Constitution authorized an extension. While these third mandates, prohibited by the Constitutions, have become symbols of the monopolization of power in West Africa, these delays have exacerbated tensions. In response, Macky Sall constantly postponed the moment to speak out. The opposition, starting with Ousmane Sonko, has made this temptation its favorite argument, claiming to fight against a dictatorship. For months, years, the controversy will rage. Last July, Macky Sall finally gave in and publicly announced that he would not run.

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He says he never thought about it, which makes you smile. “It is almost certain that Macky Sall dreamed of staying in power. It was popular pressure that forced him to change his mind,” analyzes Gilles Yabi, president of Wathi, a Senegalese think tank. The streets indeed rumbled in June after the two-year prison sentence of Ousmane Sonko, leader of Pastef. The repression left around thirty dead, a rare thing in Dakar. Diplomats were openly concerned. Paris “called for calm” and Washington said it was “concerned”. Analysts spoke of a Dakar on the verge of explosion, with Sonko’s supporters being numerous among the youngest and most deprived. The president’s declaration of non-candidacy will burst the abscess. Calm returns to the point that the incarceration of Ousmane Sonko can seem accepted.

Did the presidential entourage see this as an opening to completely relaunch the electoral process, or even the hypothesis of Macky Sall remaining in power by canceling the vote sine die three weeks before the vote? Some think so. Because, at the same time, Amadou Ba, the candidate of the majority coalition, the designated runner-up, is struggling to assert himself. Rumors claim that his replacement is seriously being considered. Amadou Ba may well be prime minister, but he has never achieved unanimous support. His appointment, when, for the first time in the history of the country, the outgoing president is not running, has even created strong divisions. Several tenors preferred to slam the door, while others, sometimes very close to Macky Sall, did not hide their criticism.

Paradoxically, Amadou Ba is not close to the president. The Senegalese press is full of testimonies recalling Macky Sall’s distrust of him. It dates back years when the former senior civil servant, one time director of taxes and lands, was called to the government as Minister of Finance. There he had built a reputation for competence and effective networks which ended up annoying the presidential palace. Briefly appointed to Foreign Affairs, he was finally dismissed before being finally recalled, to everyone’s surprise, as Prime Minister eighteen months later. And it was not his personality that pushed Macky Sall to choose him either. If he is a wise and experienced technocrat, his charisma is less obvious.

Poised to the point of discretion in public, disinclined to controversies, he let the criticisms speak, those from his camp as well as those from the opposition. In the end, his candidacy gives the impression of skating. Polls being banned in Senegal during the electoral period, Amadou Ba and his camp can however continue to claim they can win in the first round. In Ousmane Sonko’s camp too, they say they are certain of a victory, again from the evening of March 24. This time the dynamic is on their side. In Dakar, young people are mobilizing for these anti-system candidates. The legal impossibility for Ousmane Sonko to appear does not seem to have too many consequences. His notoriety benefits his replacement, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, unknown until recently.

“It’s not very surprising. In Senegal, the opposition mainly feeds on the unpopularity of the executive. And Macky Sall is unpopular,” explains Gilles Yabi. However, the ex-Pastef – it was banned in July – has not won. “We must be wary of the distorting prism of Dakar. Campaigns often vote differently and are more legitimist,” recalls an academic. He also emphasizes that the composition of the electoral lists, where young people are proportionally less represented, does not favor the opposition. “The results will undoubtedly be close,” says Gilles Yabi who expects, like many other analysts, “a second round”, while remaining “very cautious”. This election, already the most open in the history of the country, is, it is true, also the most surprising.