President Macky Sall is strong favourite to win Senegal’s election on Sunday, boosted by a modernising first term that propelled economic growth although critics accuse him of jailing rivals for political gain.
Sall (57) is facing four contenders in the first round of voting – the smallest presidential field since 1988 – after two of the best-known opposition figures were ruled out because of corruption convictions.
Rights groups say this represents a crackdown on dissent in a country long seen as West Africa’s most stable democracy, with peaceful transitions of power via the ballot box since independence from France in 1960.
Many voters and foreign backers applaud Sall for boosting economic growth to over six percent, one of the highest rates in Africa last year.
The growth was driven in part by infrastructure projects including a new airport, 221 km of multi-lane motorways, a wrestling stadium and an express train connecting the capital to a new city that has begun to rise from the semi-desert outside Dakar.
Billboards of Sall in a suit dot Dakar’s main coastal road and tout his achievements as the “Builder of Modern Senegal”.
“We are happy,” said fisherman Diabel Mbeguere, pulling his boat onto Dakar’s Yoff beach after a day at sea. “There are highways here now, many things the president has done.”
“Electricity used to be a big problem,” he added.
Long power cuts used to blight urban Senegal are rare under Sall. Thousands of villages have access to electricity for the first time too, although more than half remain without power, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Opinion polls are banned in the run-up to elections, but a widely cited survey conducted by a Senegalese data company in November gave Sall 45% support. None of the other candidates had more than 16%.
His main challengers are former prime minister and third-time runner Idrissa Seck (59) and 44-year old political rookie Ousmane Sonko, popular among Senegalese youth.
It is not clear how voting will be affected by the exclusion of presidential hopefuls Khalifa Sall, a popular ex-mayor of Dakar no relation to Macky, and Karim Wade, the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade.
Under Senegalese law, Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade are barred from running as they were jailed for graft and corruption in 2018 and 2015 respectively. The opposition says this was a strategy to boost the president’s chances of winning, a charge the ruling party denies. Sall and Wade denied the charges.
Khalifa Sall has urged his supporters to vote for Seck, with who he forged an alliance from behind bars earlier this month. Karim Wade’s father Abdoulaye says the vote is rigged and told supporters this month to take out the electoral roll and “douse it with petrol”.
His comments were criticised by other opposition candidates and civil society groups and election day is not expected to be disrupted by widespread protests.
Even so, frustration with the incumbent is palpable among educated youth, who struggle to find jobs in an economy based on exports of fish, phosphates and cement and where more than half the population works in agriculture.
“Macky Sall promised 500,000 jobs for young people, this never happened,” said 29-year old Romuald Preira, who recently completed a law degree at Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop university.
“I can’t find a small job or an internship and I’m not the only one.”
In response to a social media campaign, a televised debate between candidates will take place on Thursday. The event is a first for Senegal, but Sall refused to take part.
More than 6.5 million people are registered to vote, with polls opening on Sunday at 8 am and closing at six.
If no candidate secures a majority in the first round, the top two will face each other in a second round on March 24.