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Anger grows over “constitutional coup” in Senegal after deferral of presidential election

AnalysisAnger grows over “constitutional coup” in Senegal after deferral of presidential election

On February 3, President Macky Sall announced an indefinite suspension of the presidential election set for February 25. On February 5, after opposition deputies were forcibly removed by security forces from the parliament, the chamber voted to push the polls to December 15.

February 06, 2024 by Tanupriya Singh

Late on the night between February 5 and 6, the deputies in the National Assembly of Senegal voted to postpone the presidential election to December 15, 2024. The vote was held after the Gendarmerie forcibly removed opposition deputies from the Chamber, and passed with 105 MPs in favor, and one against.

President Macky Sall will now remain in office until his successor is chosen, even as his current mandate was set to expire on April 2.

As the National Assembly convened on Monday, protestors gathered outside the building, raising chants of “Macky Sall dictator!” and demanding that elections be held as scheduled. The crowds were repressed by riot police who deployed tear gas, while mobile internet remained suspended in parts of Dakar.

“We are a peaceful, democratic country and this President is not allowed to take our freedom just for free,” a protester told Reuters, shortly before being arrested.

Senegal was set to hold the presidential election on February 25. The polls were much awaited in a country which has witnessed a series of protests and unrest in recent years, galvanized around leading opposition candidate Ousmane Sonko and against the administration of Sall.

On February 3, mere hours before the start of the official campaigning period, Sall announced that he had revoked the electoral decree of November 26, 2023, which had set the date of the polls. He added that he would “initiate and open national dialogue, in order to create the conditions for a free, transparent and inclusive election.”

The decision was condemned as a “constitutional coup”, by civil society and political organizations including Forces vives du Senegal (F24) and the Popular Anti-imperialist and Pan-African Revolution movement (FRAPP).

“Only the Constitutional Council can postpone a presidential election, and even that postponement is highly regulated. So what brings us here is quite simply unconstitutional…today we are witnessing an attempt to forment a constitutional coup,” Guy Marius Sagna, a leading member of FRAPP and one of the MPs who was removed from parliament on Monday, told reporters.

Sagna was arrested by members of a police intervention brigade on February 6.

Meanwhile, the Y’en a Marre movement, which had emerged in response to a potential attempt by former President Abdoulaye Wade to seek a third term, also asked the Constitutional Council to clarify its role in the postponement, calling on the institution to “refuse to be instrumentalized by political actors of all stripes” and to “free itself from executive power”.

Protests broke out on Sunday as hundreds took to the streets in the capital, but were once again met with violence from security forces. Mobile internet was shut down in the capital. According to Amnesty International, 151 people were arrested by police between February 4 and 5.

Allegations against the Constitutional Council

In his address, Sall referred to a dispute between the National Assembly and the Constitutional Council and corruption allegations against the Council’s judges and questions over the disqualification of some candidates. “These troubled conditions could seriously undermine the credibility of the ballot by sowing the seeds of pre- and post-electoral disputes,” he said.

On January 31, the National Assembly voted 120-24 to create a Commission of Inquiry to investigate irregularities in the electoral process and allegations of “advantages, suspicions of corruption, and collusion” against two judges of the Constitutional Council. Accusations were also leveled against Prime Minister Amadou Ba, who was set to contest the presidential election from Sall’s Alliance pour la république (APR) party.

The Commission had been proposed by the opposition Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS), whose candidate, Karim Wade, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, had been excluded from the final list of candidates published by the Council in January. Karim Wade’s candidacy was dismissed on grounds of his dual Senegalese and French citizenship at the time of submitting his application, rendering it inadmissible under the country’s law.

In his February 3 address, Sall stated that “faced with this situation”, the National Assembly had referred to him a proposed law for the derogation of the Article 31 of the Constitution, which mandates that an election must take place at least 30 days before, or no later than 45 days after, the expiry of the incumbent’s presidential term.

Macky Sall’s ruling Benno Bokk Yakaar (United in Hope) coalition had secured a one-seat majority in the 165 member National Assembly after the 2022 parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, also excluded from the final list of candidates was 49-year-old Ousmane Sonko, whose repeated arrests and imprisonment since 2021 had sparked major protests in the country, which were met with deadly violence from Senegalese forces. The protests had also been fueled by Sall’s refusal to confirm whether or not he would run for office for a third time, in a country where there is a two-term limit on the presidency.

It was only in July 2023, after at least 16 people had been killed during protests in June, that Sall confirmed that he would not contest the election.

Sonko was ultimately excluded from the candidate list after the Senegalese Supreme Court upheld his conviction in a May 2023 defamation case brought by Tourism Minister M’baye Niang. The PASTEF party was dissolved by the government in July 2023, and Sonko has been in jail since.

In a pre-recorded message published after the final list of presidential candidates had been released in January, Sonko confirmed his support for Bassirou Diomaye Faye, the secretary-general of PASTEF, to contest the polls. While Faye himself has been detained since last April, his candidacy was validated by the Constitutional Council and has received growing support.

Those close to the party warned that the formation of the Commission of Inquiry to look into the Constitutional Council was a way for the majority to postpone the election.

The gendarmerie enters parliament

Ultimately, the challenge to the presidential candidate list came from the PDS, which on February 2, stated that it submitted a bill in the parliament to postpone the election, citing issues in the Council’s decision-making process and the dismissal of candidates. The original bill did not present a new date for the election.

A meeting of the National Assembly’s Law Commission approved a proposal for a six-month postponement, meaning that the new election would be held on August 25, 2024. The bill to postpone the elections was presented to the plenary on Monday and an amendment before the vote extended the postponement to December.

During the session on Monday, opposition MPs highlighted procedural issues, including the fact that deputies must be given 24 hours to read a proposed text, and that the text should have first been submitted to the finance committee given that there would be additional election expenses due to the postponement.

Attempts to put the bill up for a vote were met by protests by opposition MPs, who had demanded that the proposal be put through a general debate. As they stood gathered near the podium of the Assembly, members of the gendarmerie stormed the chamber and removed the lawmakers. Meanwhile, the bill was passed with votesfrom the PDS’s Liberty, Democracy, and Change parliamentary group and Sall’s ruling BBY coalition.

Importantly, at the time of Monday’s debate, the members of parliament had not seen the decree issued by Sall to suspend the elections. This was amid rumors that Prime Minister Ba had not signed the document, especially given that he had stated in interviews just days before that the polls would not be postponed.

As the dust settles on the events of the past few days, concerns have grown over what might come next. Observers have also spoken of possible maneuvering, an “orchestrated” situation, on the part of the ruling majority, in an effort to retain control of the presidency.

“Sall does not have trust in Amadou Ba being able to win the elections. So this could be an attempt to buy some more time by delaying the elections, for the party to organize itself internally and to find another candidate,” Dr. Rama Salla Dieng, a Senegalese political scientist and professor at the University of Edinburgh, told Peoples Dispatch, adding that there had been no guarantees given that elections would be held on December 15, and would not be delayed yet again.

“There have been several acts that have been imposed by the Macky Sall regime in the past which have undermined the country’s institutions and shown that they do not care about the basic needs of the people who elected them,” Dieng said.

“The elected leaders are behaving as if even our mere asking of them to respect the mandate that we elected and gave to them, is a privilege given to us, when in fact it is our right. There has to be accountability.”

At least three presidential candidates have filed a legal challenge against the postponement.

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