1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Is Senegal's democracy under threat?

Isaac Kaledzi in Accra
February 6, 2024

Senegal is considered one of West Africa's most stable democracies. But the election delay announced by President Macky Sall threatens to erode democratic gains.

 Senegalese demonstrators shout slogans on the streets of the capital Dakar.
Protests engulfed Senegal after President Macky Sall announced the postponement electionsImage: Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS

President Macky Sall's postponement of Senegal's February 25 presidential election has sparked protests and put a spotlight on the state of the country's democracy.

Lawmakers on Monday voted to endorse the delayed election announced by the outgoing president.

Straying from an earlier proposed bill that set August 15 as the country's delayed election date, lawmakers on Monday voted to hold the vote on December 15 instead, causing even more public outrage.

Sall said the poll had to be delayed to prevent potential electoral disputes that could erupt afterward.  His decision, however, has plunged Senegal into an unprecedented constitutional chaos.

Should Macky Sall be commended for not breaking the law?

Questioning the legality of the election delay

"This postponement on the constitutional level is not legal," Moussa Diaw, a political scientist at Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis, Senegal, told DW. "The Senegalese constitution provides for major situations, that is to say, an institutional crisis, a blocking of institutions or security threats," Diaw explained.

When President Sall addressed the nation over the weekend, he defended the delay, saying his decision adheres to the Constitutional Council's January decision to exclude some prominent contenders from the electoral list.

The 62-year-old leader said the council's decision could trigger discontent about the election process. "These troubled conditions could seriously undermine the credibility of the ballot by sowing the seeds of pre- and post-electoral disputes," Sall said.

But Diaw disagrees with the president's decision to delay the vote.

"There is no crisis, no blockage, the institutions are functioning very well," Diaw stressed, adding that the Constitutional Council had no problem. "The other institutions are functioning normally."

Senegalese protesters march through the streets of Dakar carrying a portrait of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.
Senegal faces a serious political crisis after the election delayImage: John Wessels/AFP

A constitutional coup?

Some of Sall's critics have described his postponement of the election as a constitutional coup and the chaos that preceded the eventual passage of the vote in parliament affirms the potential damage it could do to his reputation.

"What you are doing is not democratic; it's not republican," Guy Marius Sagna, one of several opposition lawmakers who spoke out against the delayed election, shouted during Monday's debate in parliament.

Paulin Maurice Toupane, principal researcher at the West Africa regional office of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told DW the opposition should challenge the development by referring the matter to the Constitutional Council.

"What [happened] in the National Assembly [was] in perfect contradiction with the constitution. The opposition has decided to refer the matter to the Constitutional Council if this law is adopted," Toupane said.

Senegal: Why has President Macky Sall postponed elections?

A matter for the Constitutional Council

At least three of the 20 presidential candidates, including Malick Gackou, have lodged an appeal against the postponement with the Constitutional Council.

According to Toupane, the latest surge in political tension has plunged Senegal into uncharted territory.

"We are in a period of total uncertainty. Senegal has entered a period of crisis, the ins and outs of which, no one knows," Toupane said. 

Unlike other regional armies, the Senegalese army has refrained from intervening in politics. "We hope that the army will continue to maintain this posture," Toupane added.

President Macky Sall reiterated that he won't be seeking re-election this year, to the relief of many after the 2016 referendum, which sought to give him the chance to run again.

Senegalese President Macky Sall addressing the nation on TV.
Critics accuse President Macky Sall of seeking to prolong his stay in powerImage: RTS/Reuters

Is Sall attempting to cling to power?

However, Senegal's civic groups have angrily rejected Sall's latest action, warning the president may be attempting to delay his exit.

"The postponement of the February 25 election is a clear attempt by President Sall to cling to power beyond his constitutional limit," Hardi Yakubu, Coordinator of the pan-African activism group Africans Rising, said in a statement. "In other words, by this latest move, he is trying to achieve the same outcome that previous manipulations had intended to achieve."

According to Yakubu, Sall's "actions have created a political crisis that threatens the stability and peace of Senegal and the region."

This is the first time since Senegal's independence in 1960 that a presidential election has been postponed.

Senegal's reputation as a stable democracy also derives from the fact that it has— unlike other Francophone West African countries — never experienced a military coup.

Instead, the country has witnessed three peaceful handovers of power.

Members of the Senegalese Armed Forces sit covered in dust in the back of a pickup truck
Senegal's army has refrained from getting involved in the country's politicsImage: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

Poll shows dissatisfaction with Senegal's democracy

According to Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non-partisan survey research network, there is increasing dissatisfaction with how Senegal's democracy is working.

"Afrobarometer surveys showed that most Senegalese endorse elections as the best way to choose their leaders," the body said in a statement on the delayed poll.

Across 39 countries surveyed in 2021 and 2023, Senegal recorded the third-largest proportion of citizens who prefer democracy to any other political system.

"But fewer than half of Senegalese say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in the country, a significant decline compared to 2014. And a majority think the country is less democratic than it was five years ago," Afrobarometer said.

ECOWAS reaction 'not enough'

The African Union (AU) has backed the West African regional bloc ECOWAS in expressing concerns about the election postponement and called for a new date as soon as possible, a position the European Union (EU) and the US also hold.

But Yakubu said the stance of these continental and regional bodies is weak and ineffective.

"We take note of the statement issued by ECOWAS as a weak and ineffectual statement. Instead of putting pressure on Sall to reverse his decision, it asks him to set a new date, which effectively endorses his decision," he said.

"The statement will do nothing to deter other presidents from treading this dangerous path," Yakubu warned. "Without any serious move to prevent civilian coups against constitutions, what moral right would there be to condemn military coups in the region?"

Macky Sall's tenure officially ends on April 2, but with lawmakers passing a bill to extend his stay in office until elections are held in December, it is not certain how events will unfold before then.

Clashes as Senegal leader delays vote

Brahima Tounkara contributed to this article

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu