Senegal's elections were dominated by freed prisoner Fay and his heir apparent Ba

  • Written by Khedidiatou Cisse
  • BBC News, Dakar

Image source, Getty Images

It is a crowded field of 18 people in the battle for Senegal's top job, but the two men – recently freed opposition politician Basserou Diomaye Faye and ruling party heir Amadou Bah – look likely to win over voters in Sunday's presidential election.

Their rivalry forms the basis of a major division and conflict of views in the country, which is usually seen as a beacon of democracy in West Africa, especially regarding its relationship with France, the former colonial power.

The survey is considered a rush job, as the date was announced less than three weeks ago, after a month of confusion and violent protests.

What seems to unite most Senegalese is anger directed at outgoing President Macky Sall, who tried to postpone the elections – originally scheduled for February 25 – until December.

Sall told the BBC that he moved to protect the integrity of the vote after allegations of corruption and disputes over the eligibility of some presidential candidates.

Video explanation,

Senegal President Macky Sall: I will not apologize because I did not do anything wrong

But his critics accused him of seeking to extend his term or stop time to better prepare his candidate, something he denies.

This led to political unrest, the intervention of the Constitutional Court, the president agreeing to leave office next month when his term officially ends, and setting a new date for elections.

Then last week, some of his harshest critics — those who had participated in political protests over the past few years — were released under a presidential pardon in order to calm tensions.

Among them is controversial opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who came in third place in the last election and is popular among young people eager for change.

But the 49-year-old is banned from running this time, due to a series of accusations that he says are politically motivated.

Instead, he is throwing his considerable influence behind Fay, who like him was a former tax inspector who had been released from detention at the same time – he was awaiting trial on charges of defamation and spreading fake news.

The two met while working at the tax office, and Faye, who turns 44 the day after the election, was a former secretary-general of Sonko's Pastif party, which the government dissolved last year over allegations he called for a rebellion.

Their slogan “Sonko is Diomaye, Diomaye is Sonko” has gone viral on social media in the past week.

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Candidate Basiru Diomai Faye and opposition leader Ousman Sonko are very popular among young voters

The two men – who were welcomed by crowds celebrating their release – seek to push their anti-establishment vision towards institutional reforms. It is an Afrocentric and nationalist agenda, including plans to renegotiate the country's mining and energy contracts.

Faye also wants Senegal to stop using the CFA franc, West Africa's single currency linked to the euro, with financial support from the French treasury, which his supporters consider a relic of the colonial era.

His opponents have described the proposal as irresponsible, although Mr Sonko has sought to allay such concerns by saying they would seek to reform the regional currency first and would only consider introducing a national currency if that failed.

In contrast to this extreme path, Mr Ba, who was prime minister until he resigned to run in the election, seeks to represent continuity and stability.

At his rallies, the 62-year-old criticized the former couple, calling them “bandits” and saying a vote for him was a vote for “more peace and prosperity”.

He says his ministerial record proves he will oversee development and create a million jobs in five years, as the sober statesman seeks to attract the youth vote.

Ba may have been on the political scene for the past decade, but he was a closed book to most. He tried to open up as a man of the people, revealing his love for reggae music and Bob Marley.

With more than half of Senegal's population under the age of 25, and growing frustration with unemployment and boats full of migrants heading to Europe, this demographic is important.

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Amadou Ba says a vote for him is a vote for peace and prosperity

Arami Jay Saini, executive director of youth group Social Change Factory, told the BBC that young people were involved in campaign issues, even though the majority of the seven million registered voters were aged 35 or over.

“We see them in the streets, but we are not sure that many of them will be able to vote next Sunday,” she said.

The big challenge facing all candidates was that the postponed elections fell in the middle of Ramadan.

In Senegal, Muslims constitute 95% of the population, and therefore major cities such as the capital, Dakar, and Thies witness unusual calm during the election campaign.

People tend to save their energy until iftar when the sun goes down, which means candidates have to rethink their campaign strategies.

Pamphlets detailing the proposed policies were shared online, as well as live recordings of the marches.

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Campaigning has been quiet in Dakar, seen here behind the Renaissance Monument, due to Ramadan

“We have to redouble our efforts to mobilize voters,” Anta Babacar Ngom, a business executive and the only woman in this race, told the BBC.

The candidates are still making efforts to tour the country, with Mohamed Lee, a member of Khalifa Sall's campaign team, saying that undecided voters could be decisive.

Mr. Sall, a 68-year-old former mayor of Dakar who is not related to the president, is one of two candidates who could prove to be kingmakers or push the vote to a runoff. To win outright, a competitor must receive more than 50% of the votes.

The other candidate is Idrissa Seck, the 64-year-old former mayor of Thies. Both have loyal followers.

Another influential player is Karim Wade. The 55-year-old is the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, although his candidacy was rejected because he did not renounce his French citizenship in time – electoral laws do not allow dual citizenship.

His Senegalese Democratic Party has not put forward an alternative candidate, but it has traditionally benefited from the support of the Mourides, the most influential Muslim Brotherhood in Senegal. If you publicly support a candidate, that could be decisive.

Most voters may be shocked by last month's unrest, but Electoral Directorate Head Bayrami Seni is confident they have nothing to worry about.

He told the BBC that all is well and is well prepared for Sunday's elections, when the democratic values ​​that Senegal prides itself on will be put to the test.

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