Senegal Votes in Presidential Poll That’s Too Close to Call

(Bloomberg) -- Senegal’s voters began casting their ballots in a presidential election in which the leading candidates offer a choice between policy continuity or a radical new course for one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.

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The front-runners among 19 contenders to replace President Macky Sall are his favored successor Amadou Ba of the ruling Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition, and Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who’s backed by firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko. Investors expect Ba to continue Sall’s business-friendly approach, if he wins, and are nervous about Faye’s plans to review oil and gas contracts and implement currency reforms.

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The profusion of candidates makes the race too close to call, raising the likelihood that a new leader may not be chosen until another round of voting is held next month.

“The large pool of qualified contenders may result in a split opposition, giving Ba a marginal advantage,” risk advisory firm Teneo said in an emailed note. “However, there remains a strong possibility that the vote could still go to a second round, posing a threat to Ba if the opposition manages to unite in the run-off.”

The opposition’s campaign received a boost on Friday, when former President Abdoulaye Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party, which has the third-highest number of seats in parliament, urged its supporters to back Faye. However, some factions of the party said they’ll support either Ba or Idrissa Seck, another former prime minister.

Opposition candidates Habib Sy and Cheikh Tidiane Dieye last week also called on their supporters to vote for Faye and asked to be removed from the ballot.

A credible vote will be key to restoring Senegal’s reputation as a bastion of democracy in West Africa, a region riven by a spate of coups over the past four years. The country has never had a military takeover, and Sall’s decision to delay the elections triggered street protests, international condemnation and fears that he intended to overstay his constitutional mandate.

Voting began shortly after 8 a.m. in the capital, Dakar, where long lines of people queued outside polling stations. Seven million people registered to cast their ballots. As of mid-day 29% of eligible citizens had voted, according to the interior ministry. Local radio stations will start reporting results late on Sunday.

“I studied for five years, first at the university and then I paid for two years at a private school,” said Mareme Kane, a 34-year-old accountant, as she waited to vote at the Iba Mar Diop Stadium in Dakar’s Medina neighborhood. “I can’t afford an apartment so I still live at home with my parents. We want change, jobs and better opportunities for youth.”

Ba, 62, a former finance minister who served as Senegal’s prime minister for the past two years, has pledged to accelerate economic growth. Under Sall, gross domestic product expanded more than 5% annually since he came to power in 2012, and his administration invested heavily in new roads, hospital and electricity infrastructure.

“The vote is largely about Sall’s legacy” and those who vote for Ba will do so based on the incumbent’s achievements, said Babacar Ndiaye, a political analyst with Dakar-based think tank Wathi.

Faye, a 43-year-old former tax inspector, has never held public office. He’s pledged to shake up the status quo, including reviewing contracts the government signed with companies seeking to tap the nation’s oil and gas reserves, and rethinking Senegal’s relations with former colonial power France.

Read More: Senegal Opposition Leader Urges West African Currency Reform

The opposition chose Faye as its flagbearer when Sonko was disqualified from running after being convicted of libel. Sonko is popular among the youth and, together with Faye, has drawn large crowds to rallies and sought to capitalize on public disgruntlement over rising living costs and a shortage of jobs.

The strong support that Ba’s Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition has outside major cities tends to be overlooked, said Mucahid Durmaz, a senior Africa analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.

“Large crowds of supporters in the capital, Dakar, don’t guarantee Faye a clear path to victory,” he said. “Faye’s better at mobilizing on social media, but a large following doesn’t necessarily translate into votes as we saw in the Nigerian 2023 presidential elections.”

--With assistance from Moses Mozart Dzawu.

(Updates with voter participation in eighth paragraph.)

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