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Senegal plunged into crisis as opposition blasts 'democratic bankruptcy'

The opposition in Senegal has denounced the delayed election as a 'constitutional coup' (JOHN WESSELS)
The opposition in Senegal has denounced the delayed election as a 'constitutional coup' (JOHN WESSELS)

Senegal's opposition on Tuesday denounced a "constitutional coup" after parliament voted to delay the presidential election by 10 months, plunging the country into its worst crisis in decades.

West African bloc ECOWAS said it "encourages" Senegal, a member state, to urgently restore the electoral timetable, adding it was following events "with concern".

Lawmakers backed postponing this month's vote until December 15 during a heated debate, which at times descended into shoving and pushing.

The proposal eventually passed almost unanimously late on Monday, but only after security forces stormed the chamber and removed some opposition deputies.

Ousseynou Ly, head of the Patriots of Senegal (PASTEF) party that was last year dissolved by authorities over protests, said five legislators who were either party members or allies were arrested on Tuesday in Dakar.

The vote paves the way for President Macky Sall -- whose second term was due to expire in early April -- to remain in office until his successor is installed, probably in 2025.

Opposition members said the country had been taken "hostage".

It is the first time that Senegalese voters, who were due to elect their fifth president on February 25, head to the ballot box almost 10 months later than planned.

"Senegal's image is ruined, and I don't think we'll be recovering from this democratic bankruptcy, this tsunami in the rule of law, any time soon," opposition deputy Ayib Daffe said after the vote.

Security forces earlier on Monday used tear gas to disperse opposition protesters outside parliament, where demonstrators chanted "Macky Sall dictator".

The bill was passed without the votes of the opposition MPs who were forcibly removed, with 105 in favour and only one against.

- Senegal 'taken hostage' -

The move unleashed widespread outcry on social media, despite the government suspending mobile internet access on Monday.

"We are all devastated. It's a blow to Senegalese democracy," said Pape Djibril Fall, one of the 20 candidates who had been in the running for the presidency.

Aliou Mamadou Dia, another candidate, reiterated the phrase "constitutional coup".

"They have taken the country hostage," he said.

More than 100 academics and personalities teamed up to publish a column describing Sall as the "gravedigger of the republic".

Even Senegal's celebrated musician Youssou N'Dour, a former minister and ally of the president, said he "unequivocally" condemned the postponement and was concerned for the country.

The parliament vote provides little clarity on what the future holds for the electoral process.

Senegal is often viewed as a bastion of stability in West Africa and has never experienced a coup since gaining independence from France in 1960, making it a rare case in a volatile region.

Sall on Saturday said that he delayed the vote because of a dispute between the National Assembly and the Constitutional Council over the rejection of candidates.

He said he wanted to prevent any pre- and post-electoral disputes and clashes like those that rocked Senegal in 2021 and 2023.

Tensions had soared over speculation that Sall was considering running for a third term.

He eventually confirmed last July that he would not stand again, re-iterating it on Saturday.

- Protests suppressed -

But the opposition suspects the postponement is part of a plan by the presidential camp to avoid defeat, or even to extend Sall's term in office.

The move has sparked international concern, and Human Rights Watch warned that Senegal risked losing its democratic credentials.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) called on all sides "to shun violence and all other actions that may further disturb the peace and stability of the country".

Security forces in the capital Dakar suppressed attempted demonstrations on Sunday and Monday.

Local media reported a total of 151 arrests, which AFP could not initially verify.

But mobilisation on the streets remains limited, with opposition figures yet to form a coherent bloc.

While MPs were jostling in parliament, many traders in Dakar were shutting up shop for fear of riots, looting, fires or blockades.

For many living on the breadline, a day without work can mean a day with little to eat.

"Every time there's political tension, it's us deliverymen who suffer," said Baye Cheikh Diouf.

lal/bc/imm