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Senegal’s President Says Democracy Intact After Delayed Vote Turmoil

(Bloomberg) -- Senegalese President Macky Sall defended his decision to delay elections that plunged the West African nation into turmoil, and insisted its democracy and institutions remain intact.

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“It’s true, we had a bad start, of a month or so,” he said in an interview in the capital, Dakar, on Tuesday. “It was a difficult experience, but one that will strengthen us despite the uncertainties.”

Until Sall postponed the vote that had been scheduled for Feb. 25 — citing questions around the Constitutional Council’s vetting of candidates — Senegal was widely seen as one of the last bastions of democracy in a region roiled by a series of coups in recent years.

The move was condemned by critics who called it a constitutional coup. Aminata Toure, a former prime minister, who served under Sall and was arrested during the pre-election protests, dismissed Sall’s defense.

“Senegalese defended their democracy,” she said. “We lost four young lives in the process — that’s Macky Sall’s doing. So for him to say that democracy remains intact, that the delay didn’t have any major impact, shows how disconnected he is.”

The new administration will need to ”rebuild some of the trust that was lost between the state and the Senegalese people,” she added. “It shouldn’t be this easy for one person, one man to almost change the course of a nation according his political, and personal, interests.”

Sall said the deferral and a subsequent decision to grant amnesty to opposition leaders and others implicated in political violence were necessary to reconcile a divided nation, and normality would return after the vote.

“I really wanted to leave a reconciled country, a country in peace, which continues its trajectory of stability,” he said. “This is what allows us to go to the ballots today, even if the process was not always completely straightforward.”

Millions of voters will decide on March 24 between 19 candidates, including the incumbent’s chosen successor, former Prime Minister Amadou Ba, and opposition candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was jailed along with other government critics in the run-up to the election.

Faye was released earlier this month along with firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko after an amnesty law was passed in an effort to ease tensions that ratcheted up after the postponement. No candidate is expected to win Sunday’s election outright, according to analysts, and a second round is likely after Sall officially steps down on April 2.

A win for Ba would mean policy continuity and reassure investors, while a Faye victory may have significant implications for the regional economy and Senegal’s plans to start producing gas and oil by the third quarter of this year, according to Emmanuel Kwapong, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank.

Ba would focus on creating jobs, fostering entrepreneurship, bolstering agriculture and improving the nation’s infrastructure, although “a lot has been done already,” Sall said.

Faye has signaled he intends to renegotiate gas and mining contracts with Senegal’s private partners, including BP Plc, Endeavour Mining Plc and Kosmos Energy Ltd. He also plans to review Senegal’s relations with former colonial power France and its use of the West African currency, the euro-pegged CFA franc, which is legal tender in eight countries.

“I don’t think it’s really appropriate to talk about leaving the CFA,” Sall said. “Oil and gas contracts can always be improved, but frankly, thinking that we can change the contracts already signed with the companies is not possible. That would be a disastrous turn for Senegal.”

Bonds Hammered

Uncertainty over the election date and the violent protests that marred the run-up have tarnished the country’s reputation and unnerved investors. The nation’s dollar bonds are among the worst-performing in emerging markets this year, with a loss of 7.4% compared with an average gain of 0.2%.

“I believe investors still have confidence in Senegal,” Sall said. While the country may raise new debt, “the key rates have been very high in recent months so now isn’t the best time to go. I think by the end of March, beginning of April, Senegal could return to the market to raise resources at much lower rates.”

He said the country’s debt, that increased to more than 70% of gross domestic product last year from 42% when he took power in 2012 was necessary to accelerate the country’s development. Now that much investment has been done, the nation is very rigorous about debt sustainability.

“We must be disciplined in budgetary matters, increase the capacity to collect domestic resources to have more budgetary sovereignty, and spend more efficiently with a focus on investment,” Sall said.

Despite the recent upheaval, Senegal’s economic prospects appear among the brightest in Africa. After securing a $1.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund last year, forecasts now show GDP expanding 8.8% this year as gas and oil projects go online.

--With assistance from Moses Mozart Dzawu, Paul Richardson and Antony Sguazzin.

(Updates with opposition comment from fourth paragraph.)

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