One of the bulwarks of democracy in West Africa is teetering on the brink of political disaster as Senegalese President Macky Sall seeks to extend his rule by postponing his country’s elections in defiance of constitutional rules.
In dramatic late-night scenes in Senegal’s parliament on Monday, as the crisis grew worse, opposition members stormed to the front of the chamber and seized the podium in an attempt to block a vote on the election postponement. Hours later, riot police were sent into parliament to remove the opposition politicians, and the remaining members authorized a 10-month election delay.
Senegal’s authorities launched the widening crackdown on opposition on the weekend, restricting internet access and forcing the shutdown of a private television channel. On Monday, police fired tear gas at protesters in the streets of the capital, Dakar, for a second consecutive day.
The presidential elections had been scheduled for Feb. 25. But on Saturday, just a day before the official start of campaigning, Mr. Sall announced the cancellation of the election date. The new date will be Dec. 15, according to parliament’s decision on Monday night.
Because Mr. Sall’s second presidential term will legally expire in April, the postponement of the elections is widely seen as a violation of the constitution. Mr. Sall had also considered seeking an unconstitutional third term in office, but finally announced last year that he would step down after his second term.
The election delay is provoking global concern. In a region where coups and military regimes have become increasingly common, Senegal was always regarded as one of the most stable democracies. Until now, it had never postponed an election. By contrast, military juntas have seized power in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in recent years.
Senegal has also been a traditional favourite of Canadian governments. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his predecessor, Stephen Harper, both chose Senegal as one of the small number of African countries that they visited during their terms in office, with Mr. Trudeau travelling there in 2020 and Mr. Harper visiting in 2012.
Canada, like several other Western governments, voiced concern at the postponement of Senegal’s elections. “The Embassy of Canada recognizes Senegal’s long-standing commitment to democracy,” the Canadian embassy in Dakar said in a social-media post on Sunday. “We encourage the preservation of this tradition by holding peaceful and inclusive presidential elections as soon as possible.”
Mr. Sall said he postponed the elections because of disputes over a constitutional council’s decision to exclude several candidates from the vote, with at least two of the council’s judges accused of corruption. But some opposition leaders and civil society groups say the postponement is effectively a coup. Some alleged that Mr. Sall delayed the vote because he feared an electoral defeat by his preferred candidate, Prime Minister Amadou Ba.
When demonstrations erupted in Dakar’s streets on Sunday, police attacked or detained several protesters – including two opposition candidates and several journalists. The government banned motorcycles on the streets, ordered the shutdown of a television channel, Walf, and blocked access to mobile data on internet providers, citing “subversive” messages and threats to public order.
Media freedom groups criticized the official crackdown. “Internet shutdowns leave journalists struggling to report the news in a timely manner, to fact-check misinformation, and to contact sources safely,” said a statement by the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, calling for the restoration of internet access.
Senegal’s traditional reputation as a beacon of democracy was supported by decades of history and recent opinion polls. It is one of the few countries in the region that has avoided civil wars and coups. Surveys from 2021 to 2023 found that Senegal had the third-largest proportion of citizens who preferred democracy ahead of any other political system, according to the Afrobarometer polling agency.
But the same agency found a sharp decline in support for the way democracy is functioning in Senegal. The percentage who were satisfied with the way democracy works was 64 per cent in 2014 but dropped to 48 per cent by 2022.
Over the past three years, dozens of people have been killed by police using excessive force during protests in Senegal, and nobody has been prosecuted for the killings, human-rights groups say.
Ilaria Allegrozzi, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the government’s latest actions are jeopardizing Senegal’s reputation as a beacon of democracy. In a statement on Monday, she urged the government to “rein in abusive security forces and end their assault on opposition and media.”
Samira Daoud, director of Amnesty International’s office in West and Central Africa, called on the authorities to restore the right to information.
“The government’s abrupt shutdown of internet access via mobile data and Walf TV’s broadcasting, along with the revocation of its licence, constitutes a blatant assault on the right to freedom of expression and press rights protected by Senegal’s constitution,” she said in a statement.