Senegal holds legislative elections tomorrow with balance of power at stake between the government and a budding opposition

Senegal celebrates this coming Sunday legislative elections understood as a test to gauge the strength of the head of state, Macky Sall, against the emerging opposition led by his great rival, Ousmane Sonko, two years after the presidential elections.

Sonko’s grand opposition coalition, Yewwi Askan Wi (Free the People), appears weakened but by no means defunct. The alliance, which includes Sonko’s Pastef party (Patriots of Senegal for Ethics, Labor and Fraternity), as well as former President Abdoulaye Wade’s Wallu Senegal (Save Senegal) party, is appearing without a titular national list for “technical” reasons, the government argues, but that does not mean that the almost unknown alternates have no chance of making progress.

“Like it or not, there is a ‘Sonko phenomenon,” declares a political observer to Radio France Internationale on the figure of this former tax inspector, third in the 2019 presidential elections, who claims to have been the subject of a campaign of political persecution by the Government after being accused of rape, without any proof according to the opponent, in a case still pending trial.

The indictment against Sonko sparked one of the worst waves of violence recorded in years in the country in 2021; one that left seven dead and some 240 injured when hundreds of supporters learned of his arrest as he was being transported to court to give evidence. Similar protests occurred this year when the Constitutional Council invalidated the coalition’s list of incumbents “on formal grounds”.

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In the midst of all this tension is Sall’s still unconfirmed intention to run for a third term in 2024; a decision whose critics consider unconstitutional. Any defeat by his supporters in Sunday’s vote could upset those plans. “These elections are a warm-up,” researcher Mamadou Lamine Sarr tells RFI. “The whole political debate,” he adds, “is monopolized by 2024.”

In addition, frustrations over economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic have been stoked by increases in fuel and food prices linked to the war in Ukraine

Thus, in the face of growing discontent, opposition parties expect the ruling Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition to see its parliamentary majority fall below the 125 of the 165 seats it currently holds in the National Assembly.

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“Citizens have openly expressed their weariness in the face of high prices and the high cost of living, poverty and lack of jobs,” Moussa Diaw, a professor of political science at Gaston Berger University, tells Al Jazeera.

Amid this panorama, Senegal goes to the polls to elect the members of a National Assembly to be elected according to a system that combines proportional representation with national lists for 53 legislators and majority voting in the country’s departments for another 97.

These legislative elections will mark the departure of the president of the National Assembly since 2012: Moustapha Niasse, a pillar of political life since Léopold Sédar Senghor, first president of the Republic of Senegal.

Moreover, it should be recalled that the vote, in principle, will be followed by the arrival of a new Prime Minister. The post, removed by Sall in 2019 and then reinstated in November 2021, still remains vacant. The choice of the next head of government could be a first clear indication of the president’s intentions for 2024.

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