Publication State / Democracy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - Participation / Civil Rights - Africa - West Africa Macky Versus Four: Senegal Has a Choice

Senegal’s presidential elections are scheduled for 24 February 2019



February 2019

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President Macky Sall from Senegal CC BY-SA 2.0, MONUSCO Photos

Senegal’s eleventh presidential elections are set to take place on 24 February 2019, promising to be one of the tightest election races since the country’s independence from France in 1960. President Macky Sall faces four opponents all vying for his place.


Senegal has a Muslim-majority population and enjoys the reputation of a politically stable country and exemplary democracy on the African continent. The country established its multi-party system relatively early, in 1974, well before this became the norm for Sub-Saharan African countries in the early 1990s. Léopold Sédar Senghor (1960-1980), a poet and member of the Académie Française, as well as his  successor he chose, Abdou Diouf (1981-2000) governed the country during the Socialist Party’s (PS) 40-year rule. Power was first relinquished in Senegal in 2000 when the long-term opposition politician and founder of the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) Abdoulaye Wade became president. With his main base of support among the younger Senegalese, who fell for the appeal of his slogan Sopi (change), lawyer and economist Wade always openly embraced liberalism. He was re-elected in 2007 before being beaten in the 2012 elections by Macky Sall, one of his former mentees who shot up the ladder of government in record time. Between 2000 and 2008, this geology graduate and former Mao sympathiser who later converted to a Wade-style of liberalism was appointed CEO of Petrosen (Senegal’s national oil company); minister of mining, energy and hydropower; interior minister; prime minister, and then president of the national assembly. In 2008, however, Macky Sall was removed from the post of president of the national assembly by Wade who feared he might overshadow his son Karim Wade, his would-be successor. Macky Sall responded by founding his own party, the Alliance for the Republic (APR), a vehicle which led to his success in the second round of the 2012 elections.

Similarly to Wade in his early presidency, Macky Sall’s government initially gave rise to hope among ordinary Senegalese citizens who expected a shift in both style of government and direction of public policy. Effectively, Macky Sall, now 57, belongs to the generation that was born after Senegal gained independence. By and large, this "young generation" needed to make a bold break from traditional party politics and any inferiority complex they might have with regard to France and other foreign nations. Moreover, Macky Sall had promised social measures as well as "sober and virtuous governance": an attractive prospect for voters determined to end the dynastic plans many attributed to Wade.

Notwithstanding his "youth", Macky Sall has led his seven-year term in office largely as a continuation of Wade’s government, even using legal quibbling to renege on his pledge to return to the system of five-year terms. The continuities are visible on three levels.

First, against all expectation, Macky Sall has relied on the old political class as his power base. He allied himself with Tanor Dieng, the PS’s general secretary, and Moustapha Niasse, founder of the Alliance of the Forces of Progress (AFP), a party he established in 1999 when he too left the PS after clashing egos with Tanor Dieng. Niasse was "rewarded" with the post of president of the national assembly, while Dieng was appointed president of the High Council of local government autorities (HCCT), an institution many Senegalese see as an instrument for accommodating the president’s clientelist policies. By allying with Macky Sall, Niasse and Dieng both brought about the implosion of their respective parties while some party members rebelled, asserting their political independence and openly aligning with the opposition. Khalifa Sall, the former mayor of Dakar, became active within the PS, whereas Malick Gackou, a key AFP figure, was forced to establish his own party. To create a mass basis for his young party, Macky Sall encouraged "transhumance", a morally loaded term in Senegalese politics used to describe opposition leaders who switch sides in exchange for all kinds of benefits.

Secondly, at the level of the inner workings of institutions and balance of power, Macky Sall’s administration was unable to break with the tradition of government instability inherited from Wade (three prime ministers between 2012 and 2019) and heightened the executive’s predominance. The judiciary was under President Sall’s orders who exploited the system to settle scores with formidable political opponents who he wanted rid of, in particular Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall.

Lastly, at the economic level, Macky Sall also pursued Wade’s approach consisting of financing expensive infrastructure projects, which were then awarded to foreign companies, by increasing the public debt. Against a favourable backdrop of improved terms of trade (fall in the ratio of average import prices to average export prices), the roadmap formulated by the Plan for an Emerging Senegal (PSE) after 2013 led to the highest and longest sustained growth rates in Senegal’s history. While remarkable, this economic growth is ‘extraverted’: nearly half of benefits leave the country to settle debts, repatriate profits and dividends to foreign companies, and pay expatriate workers. This growth, as seen to some degree all over Africa, has not created a large pool of decent jobs for a continuously growing workforce. Macky Sall had promised to create 500,000 jobs during his seven-year term. To defend his record, he claimed to have created 491,000 jobs between 2012 and 2018, a figure not as yet confirmed by any verifiable statistical source. The paucity of efforts in this area certainly justified the Rapid Entrepreneurship Delegation (DER), a state-run programme launched to fund start-ups, which is ultimately a means to garner votes than support small business and industry. Job creation is a real problem and is likely to become an even bigger one in light of the job destruction occurring in the informal small business sector caused in part by infrastructure programmes which are cutting off towns that used to live off road trade and competition between oligopolies in the distribution sector. Additionally, economic growth is often accompanied by environmental degradation, as highlighted by Bargny, a town which symbolises the contradictions of economic emergence where the long-term benefits of this type of development for the population appear doubtful.

Citizen sponsorship

A new aspect of the 2019 presidential elections is parrainage or citizen sponsorship. Financial guarantees alone now no longer suffice. Presidential candidates are required to collect 53,000 signatures from citizens (on presentation of their national identity card) with a further condition to collect 2,000 signatures from at least seven of Senegal’s regions. Initially implemented without any real dialogue between the government and the opposition, the measure came under heavy fire from civil society organisations and the opposition. The latter’s fears were justified as the government, in its haste, did not take all the necessary precautions to prevent one person signing twice for two different candidates or put in place a reliable system for collecting and verifying signatures. These shortcomings aside, citizen sponsorship has been a very useful measure. For one, it has drastically reduced the initial number of candidates set to run in the presidential elections—from over one hundred! Twenty-seven aspiring candidates were eventually permitted to take part in the citizen sponsorship eliminatory round. In the end, seven candidates garnered the requisite number of signatures, yet only five had their candidacy validated by the constitutional council. Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade were rejected and declared unelectable on account of their respective criminal records. Khalifa Sall was sentenced for misappropriation of funds and is currently in prison. Karim Wade too served time for embezzlement before being granted a kind of conditional "pardon":  as a condition of his release, he went into exile, to Qatar.

While the sponsorship system has made for a more organised electoral race, the risk for the future is that women and younger people, the great losers of this presidential election, will find it harder to stand as candidates. In a system where there is no a priori inspection into a candidate’s wealth and no strict monitoring of campaign funds, citizen sponsorship might steer the competition to include only candidates with the greatest financial resources, in other words those who have looted the public coffers or received undeclared funds from external and internal sponsors.


The presidential election campaign began on 2 February and closes on 22 February. Macky Sall will face four candidates: Idrissa Seck, Madické Niang, Ousmane Sonko and Issa Sall.

Idrissa Seck, secretary general of the Rewmi (the country) Party, is a powerful politician. He was Abdoulaye Wade’s second prime minister, before falling out with him, which earned him a stay in prison for embezzlement and corruption until he was acquitted by the Senegalese justice system. The former mayor of Thiès came second in the 2007 presidential election gaining 15 percent of the vote. At the time many believed him capable of ousting Wade. However, after not being consequently on the opposition’s side, his ratings plummeted. He came fifth in the 2012 presidential elections, taking only 7.9 percent of votes. Nonetheless, at 59, he remains the most experienced candidate among Macky Sall’s rivals. His ratings are just on the rise again. He appears to have gained most from Khalifa Sall’s and Karim Wade’s expulsion from the elections. Many of their followers will probably embrace Idrissa Seck, as have most of the candidates who failed to collect enough signatures.

Like Idrissa Seck, Madické Niang, 65, is a member of the liberal family. He was justice minister and later foreign minister under Abdoulaye Wade, with whom he now has a difference of opinion. A PDS MP, his candidacy came as a surprise to many. Wade had assumed his son Karim would stand as the PDS candidate, so nobody expected Madické Niang to challenge his mentor and launch his Madické 2019 coalition. Very close to Touba, the stronghold of the powerful Mouride brotherhood, Niang, a lawyer by profession, swore never to support Macky Sall.

Ousmane Sonko, leader of PASTEF (Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity) is the biggest political revelation to emerge in recent years. He caused a nuisance in his position as tax and estates inspector when he blew the whistle on the misuse of public funds and alleged corruption scandals involving Macky Sall’s staff, his administration and senior officials. After being expelled from public service by presidential decree, he won a seat in parliament in the 2017 elections. His ratings have been on the up ever since. Aged 44 and self-professedly anti-establishment, he has managed to "re-politicise" segments of the youth disheartened by the traditional political class. Sonko is the most popular politician on social media and among the Senegalese diaspora.

Issa Sall is the other political sensation of this presidential election. Holding a PhD in computer science from a US university, Professor Sall (no relation to Macky Sall) essentially rose to prominence during the last parliamentary elections when his Unity and Assembly Party (PUR) won, much to everyone’s surprise, three parliamentary seats. He might be an unassuming man, but Issa Sall is no newcomer. Now aged 63, he was an active member of the PS before he established the PUR in 1998. While the PUR is not a religious party, which would be forbidden under Senegalese law, its political base are the Moustarchidines, a movement within the Tidjane brotherhood that undoubtedly explains the party’s excellent organisation and collective discipline of its supporters.

The left is the big hole in the Senegalese presidential elections. Unsurprisingly perhaps. The political parties that identify as left are still serving up the same old rhetoric and repertoire of political action and mobilisation. The course of their strategy has always been motivated by a need to win political power through elections (not the most sensible approach given their limited financial resources) rather than identifying with the struggles of the lower and middle classes and offering grassroots alternatives. Since 1960, not a single left party has obtained 100,000 votes in any election. Ironically, the left-wing parties are being marginalised just at a time when the electorate is increasingly concentrated in the suburbs and other working-class areas where social conditions mean that the need for progressive left-wing options is real and ongoing. Knowingly marginalised, the parties on the left have willingly fallen into the role of ‘water carriers’. They have been diluted in coalitions in which they have completely lost their own identity. To quote the Senegalese intellectual Amadou Kah [1], they have abandoned the class war at the expense of the seat war. Their image has severely suffered from their recurrent participation in so-called liberal governments. In Senegal, the left has ceased to exist, whether as a political programme or as an organised popular movement. In its current state, the left is reduced to being a discourse of ideological identity whose only relevance is at the international level. Nevertheless, one section of the left which remained bureaucratic but maintained its principles supports the candidate Ousmane Sonko. Sonko, while proclaiming to be "pragmatic", from an ideological viewpoint above all defends patriotism in particular in respect of the economy.


This is the first election in which all candidates have produced a manifesto. A clear and important sign of progress. Although strictly speaking what the PUR and the Madické Niang coalition have presented is not so much a manifesto but a list of measures. While Idrissa Seck has formulated the longest manifesto, like the one delivered by Macky Sall, it lacks clear vision. Ousmane Sonko is the exception: he has published a book entitled Solutions in which he sets out his vision of a harmonious society and development strategy starting out from an examination of the current situation. But what it does not offer, however, is an analysis of society that shines a light on the social forces he might hope to rely on should he win.

In general terms, the measures candidates announce are often alike because they tend to fit with the needs and wants expressed by ordinary citizens and civil society organisations. Mostly they promise to keep an eye on the balance of power; strengthen the independence of the judiciary; ensure that senior positions in public companies are no longer filled by nomination but by more competitive processes; review the parliamentary election voting system to shift to a more proportional form of representation, and so forth. Naturally, all candidates pledge to create jobs for young people, industrialise the country, provide greater support to the Senegalese private sector, and cut public spending. One of the rare contentious issues is the CFA franc, a debate recently revived by declarations made by the Italian authorities. Ousmane Sonko is the only candidate who promises to take Senegal out of the CFA franc if he cannot exclude France from managing the currency. The other candidates either deem leaving the CFA franc risky (Madické Niang, Issa Sall, Macky Sall) or advocate a future single ECOWAS currency (Idrissa Seck).

To most observers, Macky Sall stands the best chances of winning. He has access to state funds and has implemented social policies that are sure to make an impression during the election. In this regard, we could mention the Emergency Community Development Programme (PUDC), designed to improve rural access to basic social services, universal health insurance—although coverage remains limited—as well as family benefits of 25,000 CFA francs per quarter (ca. 38 Euros) distributed initially to 300,000 households and later extended to 400,000 in 2018.

Can Macky Sall win the first round? It’s a question worth asking as his chances of winning the second round are slim. The situation would be similar to 2012, when in the second round of the presidential elections all the candidates decided to back Macky Sall over Wade. Macky Sall’s supporters, therefore, aim to have him win the first round. Should there be a second round for him, Macky Sall would probably face either Idrissa Seck or Ousmane Sonko.

If we look at the trends since 2000, this presidential election is undoubtedly set to be tighter than previous ones. Just over 6.7 million citizens have registered to vote, with 55 percent of voters in Dakar, Thiès, Diourbel and Saint-Louis. Making a reliable prediction is difficult for a number of reasons. First, the number of voters who actually have a voter card and intend to vote is unclear. Yet the more voters there are, the more likely a second round looks. Secondly, Abdoulaye Wade, who remains popular among a sizeable proportion of loyal voters, has yet to back a candidate. For now, he has simply called for a boycott of the elections which is not helpful to either candidates or voters.

All in all, there are two, overlapping "matches" at play in this presidential election. The first pits the members of the liberal family against one another, so Macky Sall against Idrissa Seck and Madické Niang. The question here is who will be the head of the family, how will the family be restructured and what privileges, status or sanctions each member of the family can hope to receive. The second match is between the traditional political class (the liberal family) and the "young" Ousmane Sonko, the anti-establishment candidate, and Issa Sall, the candidate whose manifesto gives a large place to education, culture and science. The issue is whether Senegal can hope to make a break from the chaotic, clientelist and neo-colonial practices that have characterised the nation’s politics since the 1960s. A cross-party issue is how to manage the wealth of oil and gas, resources Senegal plans to start mining in 2021. Indeed, Idrissa Seck does include this issue in his manifesto, the candidate looking to finance some of his pledges with the annual revenue of 1,000 billion CFA francs (ca. 1.5 million euro) expected from this enterprise.

Ndongo Samba Sylla is a project manager at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung West Africa in the Youth & Politics programme.

[1]  Amadou Kah, De la lutte des classes à la bataille des places. Le tragique destin de la gauche sénégalaise, L’Harmattan: Paris, 2016.