Is Ousmane Sonko the future of Senegalese politics?

44-year-old Ousmane Sonko finished third in Senegal's presidential election, energizing young people.

Image: Ousmane Sonko Twitter.

On Thursday, February 28th, Senegal’s electoral commission announced the provisional results of the country’s presidential election. Macky Sall won re-election in the first round with 58.27 percent of the vote, eliminating the possibility of a run-off where opposition support could have coalesced around one candidate. Despite popular opposition, especially in and around the capital of Dakar, Sall not only received a majority of the vote, but surpassed the 55.90 percent Abdoulaye Wade won during his re-election in 2007. The four other candidates on the ballot have rejected the results of the election, but have decided not to challenge it in front of Senegal’s Constitutional Court. The result was also confirmed by Senegal’s Constitutional Court. Idrissa Seck, the former prime minister and mayor of Thiès, finished second with 20.50 percent of the vote, followed by Ousmane Sonko at 15.67 percent. Sonko’s showing, particularly among young people, will make him a formidable challenger in the 2024 election, especially given that Macky Sall will be prohibited from running again.

A rapid expansion of infrastructure has marked Sall’s first term, including the opening of the new Blaise Diagne International Airport outside of Dakar, and more recently the inauguration of a bridge across the Gambia River to facilitate traffic between northern and central Senegal to the distant Casamance south of the Gambia. The bridge is a particularly notable accomplishment as a multi-national challenge that has frustrated citizens and governments dating back to the colonial period. Perhaps more importantly, the seven years of Sall’s first term have also seen the construction of new and improved roads and other infrastructure projects across the country. Opposition supporters argued that the president focused on infrastructure, not jobs, and is leaving Senegal’s young adults behind while consolidating the country’s economic gains within a narrow elite class.

Two major opposition candidates in the 2019 election were supposed to be the former mayor of Dakar, Khalifa Sall, and Karim Wade, the son of ex-president Abdoulaye Wade and a former “super minister” given charge of much of the government’s budget during his father’s presidency. Wade, representing his father’s Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS), was convicted in 2015 of embezzling 178 million euros during his father’s administration, a figure many suspected was an understatement. Macky Sall pardoned Wade in June 2016, after which he went into exile in Qatar. Wade was never particular popular (he lost an election for mayor of Dakar while his father was president), but his father’s popularity would have lent him some validity that may have taken some votes away from Sall.

Khalifa Sall (no relation to the president), served as mayor of Dakar from 2009 until his conviction on charges of embezzling 1.8 billion CFA (2.8 million euros) in 2018. While Karim Wade had supporters who rejected his jailing as politically motivated, there was a far greater outcry from the public over Sall’s arrest and subsequent trial. Many accused the government of acting not on principles of good governance, but instead intentionally sidelining a chief rival for political reasons. In January 2019, both Wade and Sall were deemed ineligible to run in the presidential election, at which point Sall threw his support behind the former prime minister Idrissa Seck. Khalifa Sall continues to be popular in Dakar, which could have lowered the president’s percentage, but nationwide has minimal appeal. The 2019 election often seemed to be a referendum on President Macky Sall rather than on any particular vision for the country, a dynamic that echoed the 2012 election when Sall defeated Abdoulaye Wade.

With Wade and Sall, opposition candidates struggled to gain traction. However, it is important to note the historical patterns of elections in Senegal. In the 2000 and 2012 elections where incumbent presidents were defeated, both incumbents led by substantial margins after the first round, before seeing little to no gains in the run-off election. In 2000, President Abdou Diouf received just over 41 percent of the vote in both rounds, while the challenger Abdoulaye Wade rose from 31 to 58.5 percent. In 2012, the pattern was even more stark. Incumbent Abdoulaye Wade received 34.8 percent in the first round, and saw a 0.6 percent drop in the run-off (albeit with higher turnout). Sall, on the other hand, saw his 26.6 percent in the first round jump to 65.8 percent. These numbers indicate that had the opposition been able to limit Sall to under 50 percent in the first round, a run-off election could have led to Sall’s defeat.

Sall won majorities in most of the country’s districts. He lost to Seck in Mbacké, which contains the Mourides’ holy city of Touba, and Thiès, where Seck had served as mayor, while losing to Sonko in his home Ziguinchor Region. Outside of these particular geographic bases for Seck and Sonko, Sall comparatively underperformed in and around Dakar. According to the provisional numbers, Sall received 46.8% of the vote in Dakar, as compared to 25.5% for Idrissa Seck and 22.2% for Ousmane Sonko. He also received less than a majority in Guediawaye and Pikine on the outskirts of Dakar. This reflects in part growing discontent with a lack of employment opportunities and environmental degradation. Sall’s lack of support is particularly notable in Dakar and Thiès given that he received over 72 percent of the vote in each region in the run-off election of 2012.

On the other hand, Sall’s margins of victory in some of the outlying areas of the country seem so extreme as to almost be unbelievable. In the districts of Podor, Matam, and Kanel along the Senegal River, over 93 percent of voters went for the president (Sall’s parents are from the Matam region). He also ran up large margins as well in eastern and southern Senegal, as well as over 80 percent in his home area of Fatick.

Senegal’s opposition parties will have five years to regroup now that the presidential term has officially been shortened from seven to five years due to a 2016 constitutional referendum that the Constitutional Court controversially decided did not apply to Sall’s first term. It remains to be seen whether Khalifa Sall or Karim Wade will be eligible to run in 2024, or whether Idrissa Seck will run for president for a fourth time.

Ousmane Sonko, of the PASTEF (Patriots of Senegal for Ethics, Work, and Fraternity) party founded in 2014, gained traction among Senegalese youth with a more radical stance calling for the abolition of the West African Franc (CFA) and moving the Senegalese economy away from foreign corporations. The party’s anti-corruption stance was particularly popular among urban youth who have become disaffected with Sall’s presidency, and saw him as part of the larger corrupt establishment that included Khalifa Sall and Wade. Sonko’s background as a former tax collector gave him credibility in pushing back against the tax evasion practiced by many foreign corporations active in Senegal. He proved particularly popular in the greater Dakar area, and finished well ahead of Seck in most of the areas furthest from Dakar. Should he choose to run, he will be a formidable challenger in the next election.

Assuming no political machinations like those that allowed Abdoulaye Wade to run for a third term in 2012, Macky Sall will not be on the ballot in 2024. His Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition has no clear successor, and it remains to be seen if his popularity can be transferred to future candidates. Sall had seven years to develop a network of supporters across the country, and the only other candidates with large political bases were deemed ineligible. The test for any future emerging candidates in Senegal will be to develop a political base outside of one’s home region and major urban centers, building a network in towns and villages where governing parties have tended to maintain support. Without a sitting president on the ballot, the next election will hopefully focus more on a vision for the future than a referendum on the incumbent, a welcome refresher after a series of elections focused primarily on presidents’ job performance.

Further Reading

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'Pikine'

Senegalese Gokh-Bi System shout out their neighborhood, one of the poorest in the capital Dakar, as well as the mbalax singer, Ndongo Lo, who died in 2005.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTNpJw2sDKc

Video by Directed by Magee McIlvaine