Senegal votes for legislators amid rising political acrimony

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Senegal is voting on Sunday in legislative elections that pits President Macky Sall’s ruling party against an opposition coalition energised by food price hikes and fears Sall could run for a controversial third term.

“We have come to choose those who will sit for us in parliament. Above all, we expect them to help us in this period of inflation, and for prices to come down,” said Omar Ba, one of the first to vote in Dakar’s Pikine neighbourhood.

The political backdrop in the country of 17.5 million, considered among West Africa’s most stable democracies, has become increasingly acrimonious, fuelled in part by Sall’s refusal to rule out breaching term limits to run in 2024.

Violent protests erupted last year after Sall’s main opponent, Ousmane Sonko, was arrested on rape charges. Sonko, who came third in the last presidential election in 2019, denies the allegations and says they are politically motivated.

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Violent protests broke out again last month after the main opposition coalition’s primary list of parliamentary candidates, which included Sonko, was disqualified on technical grounds. As a result, the coalition’s backup list – consisting mostly of relative unknowns – will be on the ballot.

The coalition is hoping to build on gains it made during the January municipal election when it won control of Senegal major cities.

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Sall’s ruling Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition is trying to conserve its majority of more than three-quarters of the parliament’s 165 seats.

Sall swept to power in 2012 and was elected again in 2019. He has campaigned on big-ticket construction projects such as a high-speed train line and a conference centre, as well as oil and gas production.

His opponents have seized on growing frustrations with economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic and rising fuel and food prices.

Sall’s refusal to publicly rule out a candidacy in 2024 has stoked fears he will follow in the footsteps of Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara and former Guinea President Alpha Conde. Both men stood for — and won — third terms in 2020 by arguing that new constitutions had reset their two-term limits.

Senegal adopted constitutional revisions, which among other things reduced presidential terms from seven to five years, in 2016. Sall has declined to comment on his intentions for 2024.