Dakar, Senegal – After a tense few days of waiting for a winner in Sunday’s legislative elections, provisional results released showed President Macky Sall’s governing coalition lost its majority in a poll pitched by opposition groups as a referendum on his policies and potential third-term aspirations.
However, the main opposition coalitions also failed to win a majority of the National Assembly’s 165 seats. Sall’s coalition, United in Hope (Benno Bokk Yakaar, in the Wolof language) won 82 of the assembly’s 165 seats, one shy of a majority.
The main opposition coalitions, Liberate the People (Yewwi Askan Wi) and Save Senegal (Wallu Senegal), running in an alliance, won 56 and 24 seats, respectively, for a total of 80. The remaining three seats were split among smaller parties and coalitions.
Thursday’s results throw yet another twist onto an already suspense-filled week following the high-stakes Sunday polls. How the various groups will govern and how much influence the main opposition or Sall’s camp will have remains to be seen, as they will have to court the three remaining legislators.
Senegal has never before had a National Assembly without an outright majority, and a Senegalese president has never governed without his party holding the majority.
“There will be a balancing of political forces,” said Maurice Soudieck Dione, a political science professor at Senegal’s Gaston Berger University.
“President Sall no longer has his comfortable majority, his mechanical majority that allowed him to do whatever he wanted.
“There’s going to be an effect of checks and balances,” Dione said, adding the “presidentialisation” of the legislative campaign by the opposition – that is, making the elections a referendum on Sall – was a successful strategy.
A backdrop of democratic backsliding in Senegal had, for many, elevated the stakes of Sunday’s vote. After constitutional changes during Sall’s first term, many said he was likely to argue that such changes effectively reset his time in office, allowing him to pursue another mandate in 2024 despite being limited to serving two terms.
The opposition hoped a majority in the National Assembly would complicate such a move. For years now, Sall has repeatedly declined to comment publicly on whether he would seek a third term, putting many on edge.
The tension between Sall’s camp and the opposition arose soon after Sunday’s voting ended, when Sall’s coalition declared victory in the early morning hours of Monday.
The opposition coalitions rejected the move as premature – and later claimed victory for their side.
Results were initially expected Monday, but amid close margins, voters were stuck waiting as administrative department vote counts came in individually, in a slow drip.
As more votes trickled in throughout the week, it started to look like the opposition had the edge. Before Thursday’s results, attention had turned to the northern region of Saint Louis.
Liberate the People called for the national vote counting commission to suspend the announcement of the results in order to give the opposition a chance to look into allegations of fraud and irregularities in some northern polling stations, but the request was rejected.
Allegations in the press and suspect videos on Twitter have circulated in recent days, but analysts said that while the situation is complicated, no proof of fraud has appeared.
The Collective of Civil Society Organizations for Elections, a local election observation group backed by international observers, said fair elections were held with minimal disruptions.
Protests ahead of elections
Protests sprung up in Dakar and around the country in the lead-up to the vote when the candidate list for Liberate the People was thrown out by the constitutional council on a technicality – leaving high-profile candidates such as Ousmane Sonko, a 2019 presidential contender, off the ballot.
Considering previous political rivals to Sall have also found themselves in prison or with charges levelled against them, the constitutional council’s decision was interpreted by some as political interference.
In Sunday’s elections, Liberate the People had to run its substitute list, largely composed of political outsiders. Sall’s coalition, which had to drop its substitute list in another technicality dinged by the constitutional council, defended the process.
“If you make a list that does not respect what the law says, it is simply eliminated,” Sall told French broadcaster Radio France International. “It’s tough, but that’s the law.”
Protesters also took to the streets in Dakar and cities around the country last year when Sonko was arrested for rape – charges he has denied. But the tension seen between Senegal’s rival politicians was largely absent among voters on Sunday, in polls that observers have said largely went off without a hitch.
Though the capital, Dakar, went to the opposition, there were plenty of voters happy to cast a vote for Sall’s coalition. Under Sall, Senegal’s economy grew by more than 6 percent each year from 2014 to 2018.
Even amid an economic downturn in 2018 – then followed by the COVID-19 pandemic – the country’s GDP continued to maintain positive, if hampered, growth.
Much-needed infrastructure projects, from highways to refurbished regional airports to new bridges, are under construction around the country. Off-shore oil and gas production has just kicked off, and a new train line runs from Dakar through its suburbs out to newly built stadiums and conference centres on the outskirts of the capital.
“There are a lot of things that need to be done, and they’re behind them,” said Daouda Banji, a United in Hope voter sitting in the courtyard of a middle school that doubled as a polling centre on Sunday in the crowded suburb of Thiaroye. “They’re working for our country.”
At the same time, the rising tide of the economy has not lifted all boats equally. While the country has rebounded from the worst of the pandemic, worldwide inflation – a fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, COVID-induced supply chain woes, and Wall Street speculation – has pushed up prices for items such as wheat and cooking oil.
Rent, cost-of-living issues, and unemployment are longstanding issues among concerned citizens. Other entrenched issues remain unsolved: This spring, conflict heated up again between the Senegalese army and separatist rebels in the Casamance region, where after 40 years of peace continues to look elusive.
In July, as seasonal rains swamped Dakar, some neighbourhoods found themselves underwater despite repeated promises to improve the city’s and surrounding suburbs’ infrastructure.
“Everything that happens at the National Assembly, it’s Macky Sall who decides … I’m voting in the first place for the people to have representation in the National Assembly,” said Oumar Fall, a Senegalese-American who voted abroad from Detroit, Michigan, where he is a postal worker.
“There’s the possibility of a third term [for Sall], which would plunge the country into chaos.”
Senegal’s National Assembly has 97 legislators elected by a majority in their department and 53 elected by proportional representation. Another 15 legislators are elected by Senegalese living abroad.
While the country is noted for its political stability, that has not always been equivalent to a healthy democracy: Sall came to power after defeating then-President Abdoulaye Wade during a third-term run by the incumbent, who used changes to the constitution as an excuse to reset his time in office.
Senegalese took to the streets and the ballot box to reject Wade, and many of the same protesters from that 2012 election have been demonstrating over fears Sall will try the same thing.
While the opposition failed to win a majority, some analysts and observers highlighted the fact Sall’s party lost its majority bodes ill for any third-term presidential attempts.
On Sunday, some supporters noted their votes for United in Hope were not necessarily votes for a third term for Sall.
“Those are the presidential elections – it’s not time for that yet,” said Badji, the United in Hope voter in Thiaroye.
Bintou Sané, a high school student who voted for Sall’s party, added, “We can wait, we can see.”