On July 4, millions across Senegal let out a sigh of relief when President Macky Sall announced in a nationwide address he would not run for a third term.
A 2016 constitutional referendum barred presidents from serving more than two five-year terms but Sall, elected four years earlier, had long maintained that he was eligible to stand for another mandate. The new law, he argued, effectively reset the clock on his term limits.
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His long-running refusal to specify whether he would run in the February 2024 polls, and legal quagmires entrapping some of his political opponents under disputed circumstances, helped fuel deadly protests during his presidency.
But while Sall’s announcement brings relief for pro-democracy activists and citizens alike across the West African country, it also throws February’s election wide open.
“The decision by Macky Sall to not be a candidate is unprecedented,” said Babacar Ndiaye, a political analyst and research director at the Dakar-based West Africa Think Tank (WATHI). “The outgoing president, Macky Sall, is going to organise the election, and won’t be a candidate. And in Senegal, we’ve never had that. We’ve always had an election where the incumbent president was running for another mandate.”
The race to 2024
Already in the race is Idrissa Seck, the runner-up to 2019’s presidential vote, and whose Rewmi party had joined Sall’s ruling Benno Bokk Yaakaar (BBY) coalition after last year’s parliamentary elections. Also running is Aminata Touré, who previously served as Sall’s prime minister. But while both of those candidates served with Sall in government, they’ve left to pursue their presidential ambitions.
Seck has painted his candidacy as being based on “more jobs and income, more food and food security, as well as equitable access to basic services” – the type of issues the country’s next president will face no matter who wins in 2024.
Despite Senegal posting solid economic growth in recent years, analysts and voters told Al Jazeera that a lack of jobs for the country’s burgeoning youth population will remain a top – and difficult – priority for the next administration.
For his part, the president told the media that he delayed his announcement in order to avoid becoming a “lame duck”. He also said that, had some sort of “threat” put the country’s stability in doubt, it might have been wise for him to run again.
But analysts speculate that the fact that he doesn’t yet have a designated successor might lead to Sall mulling another run.
And there is a regional precedent for this pessimism.
Alassane Ouattara, president of Ivory Coast, also promised not to seek a third term in 2020 – only to turn around to do so after the death of his party’s candidate, Amadou Gon Coulibaly. Senegalese opposition politician Birame Souleye Diop was charged in court this week for suggesting Sall might poison his future political successor and then run himself, “Ouattara-style.”
This close to the Senegalese election, there are unlikely to be further major defections from BBY, said Maurice Soudieck Dione, associate professor of political science at Université Gaston Berger of Saint-Louis.
“By not running for another mandate, President Sall will put the coalition Benno Bokk Yaakaar in a more politically comfortable position,” Dione said. Without time to fracture amid multiple presidential bids, it’s more likely BBY will coalesce around a single candidate.
Current Prime Minister Amadou Ba and Economic, Social and Environmental Council President Abdoulaye Daouda Diallo, among others, are said to be possible BBY contenders.
The son of ex-president Abdoulaye Wade, Karim, and former Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall were both convicted under Sall’s tenure – actions disputed by their supporters as politically motivated. But they are likely to jump into the fray as well, as a “national dialogue” process is expected to reinstate their eligibility to run for the presidency, Ndiaye said.
The Sonko candidacy
Hanging over the election is the fate of Ousmane Sonko – the fiery opposition leader who has tapped into disillusionment with Senegal’s political elite to gain a huge following among the country’s youth, themselves often unemployed or underemployed.
His conviction in June for “corrupting youth” was lighter than expected – he had originally been charged with rape, in a trial that fuelled massive protests and harsh government crackdowns, with supporters saying the case had been fabricated to politically sideline him. He came in third place in 2019, but his eligibility to stand in the 2024 race remains in doubt.
Observers and voters worry that a race where Sonko is barred from running would bring about more protests.
“Macky Sall renounced a third run because of internal and external pressure,” including from protests, said Samba Thiongane, a Sonko supporter in Dakar. “If he had declared his candidacy, that would have been the end of the republic.
“The problem with the presidential elections is that if the elections are not inclusive, the next president will have even more problems than Macky Sall, because he won’t be legitimate,” Thiongane added. “There’s a very palpable risk things go awry before or after the elections.”
Yet some think that, with Sall out of the race, some of the fury that filled the protests around Sonko’s trial and conviction might dissipate.
“The president has done a lot,” including building roads and highways, and raising government workers’ salaries, said Nuru Sow, a nurse in Kaolack and BBY supporter.
“Even a lot of Senegalese who were against Macky Sall are of the opinion they will vote for the (candidate) who Macky Sall chooses” to succeed him, Sow said. “They weren’t against Macky Sall – they were against the third mandate.”
From ‘flawed democracy’ to ‘hybrid regime’
Sall stepping aside after two terms is on the one hand a confirmation of Senegal’s established democratic consolidation: Senegal’s first two presidents, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Abdou Diouf, served for two decades each. As opposition parties were given more freedom under Diouf, and following his defeat at the ballot box in 2000, democracy’s roots began to more firmly take hold.
Those roots have since been stress-tested repeatedly. Diouf’s successor, Abdoulaye Wade, also ran for a third term in 2012. He was defeated by Sall, an irony Sall’s detractors were keen to point out amid his yearslong reluctance to commit to two terms. (Wade had employed the same controversial accounting Sall did, arguing constitutional revisions had reset his term limits.)
In Sall’s 12 years in office, Senegal dropped from “free” to “partly free,” in global democracy rankings from the Washington-based NGO Freedom House. Over the same era, Senegal dropped from a “flawed democracy” to a “hybrid regime”, as per the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2022 Democracy Index.
And yet, those flaws, as well as the deaths of protesters killed by security forces or the jailing of journalists and opposition politicians under his tenure, might soon be forgotten by an international community that was happy to see him decide to stand down. Already, the United States has said he set an “example” for the region, sometimes described as a “coup belt”. In an interview with French daily Le Monde, Sall even appeared to hint that he might make a good fit at the United Nations.
As it stands, Sall is the first Senegalese president to voluntarily limit himself to two terms. Given the mass of protesters that assembled demanding he do so, he likely will not be the last.