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Senegal heads to the polls after delayed elections - here's what you need to know

Supporters celebrate the release of Senegal's top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and his key ally Bassirou Diomaye Faye outside Sonko's home in Dakar, Senegal, Thursday, March 14, 2024.
Sylvain Cherkaoui
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AP
Supporters celebrate the release of Senegal's top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and his key ally Bassirou Diomaye Faye outside Sonko's home in Dakar, Senegal, Thursday, March 14, 2024.

Senegal holds elections this weekend. Finally. The West African country has long been lauded as a stable, even model democracy, in a region rife with political crises and coups.

But the last few years have belied that image. President Macky Sall's unprecedented decision in February to extend his stay in office and delay the elections until the end of the year — after they were initially planned to be held later that month — outraged many both at home and abroad.

Senegal has enjoyed a relatively peaceful transfer of power in every election since independence in 1960 from former colonial ruler France – although it has weathered controversy. But the president's announcement on state TV last month sparked protests and an unprecedented constitutional crisis. Within two weeks, his decree was reversed by the country's constitutional court and the election date was rescheduled for March 24.

Demonstrators protest President Macky Sall decision to postpone the Feb. 25 vote.
Stefan Kleinowitz / AP
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AP
Demonstrators protest President Macky Sall decision to postpone the Feb. 25 vote.

Why is this such a critical election?

Concerns around a potential controversial third term attempt by Sall and growing accusations of a clampdown on themedia and political opponents have inflamed tensions in Senegal in recent years.

In July, Sall finally put an end to speculation, saying he would abide by the constitution and step down in the interests of stability.

The constitutional court has ruled that the president must leave office by at the end of his second term on April 2. To some, this reflects the strength of Senegal's institutions and democracy. But to others, it shows how fragile it really is, in a region that is experiencing a widespread wave of democratic regression.

A supporter of Senegalese presidential candidate, Amadou Ba of Senegalese President Macky Sall's ruling coalition, reacts as he wear a T-shirt depicting Ba in Fass Boye, Senegal March 20, 2024.
Zohra Bensemra / REUTERS
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REUTERS
A supporter of Senegalese presidential candidate, Amadou Ba of Senegalese President Macky Sall's ruling coalition, reacts as he wear a T-shirt depicting Ba in Fass Boye, Senegal March 20, 2024.

Who are the candidates?

On Sunday, voters will choose from 19 candidates, but two of them, both former tax collectors, have gained the most attention.

Amadou Ba, who was prime minister until early this month, is the frontrunner in the race. The 62-year-old was endorsed by President Sall and has the weight of the ruling Benno Bokk Yakaar party. He has promised to build on Sall's achievements in office.

His most likely challenger is 43-year-old Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was released from prison a week before the vote in a bid to ease pre-election tensions. Faye was detained without trial last April, accused of inciting insurrection. He has pledged to restore calm and unite Senegal, renegotiate oil and gas contracts with foreign multinationals and replace the France-backed West African CFA franc with a new currency.

Faye was freed alongside Ousmane Sonko, Senegal's leading opposition figure and a firebrand populist who was barred from running for president. Sonko has become Sall's most ardent critic and galvanized many younger people in Senegal. But he has faced many prolonged legal battles.

Accused of rape in 2021, he was eventually cleared, but then sentenced to prison for two years in 2023 for "corrupting a minor," or improper behavior toward a 20-year-old massage therapist. He has repeatedly called the charges politically motivated. Unable to take part in the election because of a defamation conviction, he has endorsed Faye.

The other notable presidential candidate is Anta Babacar Ngom. She is the only woman on the ballot and the first woman to run for office in more than a decade. She is unlikely to gain significant votes, but her presence is a nod to Senegal's women's movement, which has pushed for gender parity in politics.

Carts ride past electoral posters in Dhara on March 21, 2024, as eighteen men and one woman are in the running on March 24 to become Senegal's fifth president.
MARCO LONGARI / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Carts ride past electoral posters in Dhara on March 21, 2024, as eighteen men and one woman are in the running on March 24 to become Senegal's fifth president.

What are the main issues?

Adding to the political tensions are economic challenges facing ordinary people, and thelack of real prospectsin a country where the median age is just 18. These economic hardships have driven thousands overseas, many risking their lives to make treacherous journeys to reach Europe.

Despite having one of the region's most stable and fastest-growing economies, more than a third of Senegal's 17 million people live in poverty and 1 in 5 people are unemployed. The cost of living has also increased in recent years, in part driven by the impact of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Fatoumata Bintou Zahra Sene, 21, would rather be working but she is hanging out with her friend on a sunny afternoon in the Colobane neighborhood in the capital Dakar. On Sunday, she will vote for the first time and for a party that she says promises to bring change.

"The lack of jobs is very difficult for us, we've done everything to find a job to support ourselves but found nothing," she told NPR." People lost hope a long time ago. But maybe if Diomaye becomes president things will improve, people will see their life conditions improving."

Only weeks ago, Sene's neighborhood was the center of anti-government protests. Hundreds of people set up roadblocks to slow down police cars and chanted "Macky Sall is a dictator." They were met by dozens of police who arrested many and used tear gas to disperse crowds.

The political uncertainty of the past few years has led voters such as Veronica Preira to push for greater checks and balances in government.

"We want to reduce the power of the president because in Africa, our presidents are as kings," she said. "They have [a lot] of power and we don't feel that we are in a democracy."

Senegalese protesters from civil society platform AAR SUNU Election hold a march to protest against the postponement of the presidential election that was scheduled for February 25 in Dakar, Senegal February 17, 2024.
ZOHRA BENSEMRA / REUTERS
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REUTERS
Senegalese protesters from civil society platform AAR SUNU Election hold a march to protest against the postponement of the presidential election that was scheduled for February 25 in Dakar, Senegal February 17, 2024.

When will the results be announced?

The results will be declared within a few days of Sunday's vote. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote on Sunday, there will be a runoff a month after the election.

In the event that a runoff takes place, it would be after Sall's term ends on April 2. According to the Constitution, the president and speaker of parliament, Amadou Mame Diop would take over as interim president.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.
Ayen Deng Bior