An opposition supporter reacts in front of burning barricades during demonstrations called by the opposition parties in Dakar on February 4, 2024. Senegal police fired teargas at opposition supporters in the capital Dakar, in the first of such clashes after President Macky Sall announced the postponement of the presidential election. Senegal has been thrown into a political crisis after Sall announced on February 3, 2024 that he is postponing the presidential election that had been planned for February 25, 2024, without giving a new date. (Photo by Seyllou / AFP)
(AFP) – Senegalese lawmakers voted late Monday to delay this month’s presidential election until December, an unprecedented move that has sparked international concern over a country normally seen as a beacon of stability in West Africa.
The bill was passed near unanimously, with 105 votes in favor and one against, after opposition deputies were forcibly removed from the chamber.
It paves the way for President Macky Sall to remain in office until his successor is installed, despite growing concern about the erosion of democracy.
“The situation is completely catastrophic, Senegal‘s image is ruined, and I don’t think we’ll be recovering from this democratic bankruptcy, this tsunami in the rule of law, any time soon,” opposition deputy Ayib Daffe said after the vote.
Earlier, security forces outside used tear gas to disperse small groups of opposition protesters, with demonstrators chanting “Macky Sall dictator”.
The atmosphere in Senegal has been tense since Saturday when Sall announced a delay to the February 25 vote, just hours before campaigning was officially set to begin.
“Let’s not be an assembly of shame. Let’s make sure that when we leave here we can look at our children with pride and say that we were the last wall, the last bulwark,” said opposition MP Abass Fall during the debate over the postponement.
Adopted a day earlier by a preparatory committee, the proposal for the election delay was supported by MPs from Sall‘s party, which has been unable to fully coalesce around the president’s favoured successor.
“President Macky Sall said he would serve two terms. He has kept his word,” said MP Moussa Diakhate, chairman of the pro-government law committee.
Violence has previously broken out in Senegal over fears Sall would try to extend his tenure beyond the end of his second term, and he has previously insisted he would not.
– ‘Constitutional coup’ –
The sporadic clashes outside parliament were a rare sight in the normally calm area of downtown Dakar, where police and security forces backed up by heavy vehicles, were mobilised to protect parliament.
Demonstrator Malick Diouf, 37, said he had no preferred candidate and did not even have a voting card, but felt it crucial to come and protest.
“The main thing for me is to say ‘no’ to this political agenda, this coup de force to try to stay in power,” he told AFP.
Opposition leaders had denounced the proposed delay as a “constitutional coup” and an assault on democracy.
Violent street protests rocked the capital Dakar on Sunday, and two opposition candidates, including former prime minister Aminata Toure, were arrested and later released.
The government early on Monday suspended mobile internet access, citing the dissemination of “hateful and subversive messages” on social media.
It was a repeat of a move last June, which saw mobile data restricted amid high tensions in the country.
The measure has become a common response to curb mobilisation and communication via social networks.
– Democracy at risk –
Senegal has never experienced a coup since gaining independence from France in 1960, making it a rare outlier in coup-hit West Africa.
The proposed delay had sparked international concern, with the United States, European Union and France all appealing for the election to be rescheduled as soon as possible.
The chairman of the African Union commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat also urged Senegal to resolve its “political dispute through consultation, understanding and dialogue”.
Human Rights Watch warned that Senegal risked losing its democratic credentials.
“Senegal has long been considered a beacon of democracy in the region. This is now at risk,” it said in a statement.
“Authorities need to act to prevent violence, rein in abusive security forces, and end their assault on opposition and media. They should respect freedom of speech, expression, and assembly, and restore internet, putting Senegal back on its democratic course.”
The crisis has led to fears of the kind of violent unrest that broke out in March 2021 and June 2023, which resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of arrests.
Tensions had soared over speculation that Sall was considering running for a third term, until he eventually confirmed last July that he would not stand again.
Now the opposition suspects the postponement is part of a plan by the presidential camp to avoid defeat, or even to extend Sall‘s term in office, despite him saying he would not stand for re-election.
Sall has designated Prime Minister Amadou Ba as his would-be successor.
However, with the ruling party split over his candidacy, he faced possible defeat at the ballot box.
Sall on Saturday said that he delayed the vote because of a dispute between the National Assembly and the Constitutional Council over the rejection of candidates.
© Agence France-Presse