Senegal Votes in Presidential Election After Months of Unrest

DAKAR, Senegal — Polls opened in Senegal on Sunday morning in a tightly contested presidential race that followed months of uncertainty and unrest that has tested the West African nation’s reputation as a stable democracy in a region that experienced a wave of coups in recent years.

The roads were largely deserted early in the morning in Senegal’s capital and the nation’s elite police force were stationed all over the city in armored vehicles. Outside polling centers, police checked voters cards as men and women in formal dress lined up.

The election is being held weeks after President Macky Sall unsuccessfully tried to call it off until the end of the year. Sall is barred from running for a third term due to constitutional term limits. As a result, the vote is taking place during Ramadan, the holy month when observant Muslims fast from dawn until dusk.

The election is set to be the nation’s fourth democratic transfer of power since Senegal gained independence from France in 1960. The process has been marred by violence and unrest, and hundreds of opposition protesters have been arrested and jailed.

There are 19 candidates in the race, including one woman, the highest number in the nation’s history.

“This is poised to be the most competitive election since the introduction of multiparty politics,” Tochi Eni-Kalu, Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group, told The Associated Press.

Analysts say no candidate is expected to win more than 50% of the vote, which means a runoff between leading candidates is widely expected. These include Amadou Ba, a former prime minister, and Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who is backed by popular opposition figure Ousmane Sonko.

Sonko, who came third in the previous election, was barred from running in January because of a prior conviction for defamation. He has faced a slew of legal troubles in recent years that supporters say are part of a government effort to derail his candidacy.

Other potential frontrunners are Khalifa Sall, a former mayor of Dakar unrelated to the president, and Idrissa Seck, a former prime minister from the early 2000s who was the runner up in the 2019 presidential race.

Two candidates dropped out this week to back Faye’s candidacy, a sign of the start of coalition-building that could determine the outcome of the race, according to analysts.

At the forefront of concerns for many Senegalese voters is the economy, which has been squeezed by high food and energy prices partly driven by the war in Ukraine. Unemployment among the nation’s youth is widespread, driving thousands to risk their lives on dangerous journeys in search of jobs in the West.

“Jobs are really, truly the priority. Everyone can see that unemployment is taking over,” said Oumy Sarr, a political activist. “The second priority is the high cost of living in Senegal today. What is to be done to improve people’s living conditions? Inflation is rising, everyone is tired.”

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