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Senegal's presidential candidates kick off campaigns after violent protests over a delay of the vote

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Presidential candidates in Senegal kicked off their election campaigns on Saturday, following weeks of violent protests across the African country after the vote was delayed.

The 19 approved candidates vying for the top job now have a shorter period to rally supporters ahead of the March 24 election, expected to be the most tightly contested race since Senegal gained independence more than six decades ago.

The recent violent protests have also raised concerns for a country that used to be seen as a beacon of democratic stability in West Africa, a region plagued by coups and insecurity.

President Macky Sall, who is prevented from running because of term limits, postponed the election last month, just weeks before it was to take place on Feb. 25. His announcement that the vote would instead be held 10 months from now plunged Senegal into chaos as opposition protests filled the streets.

Senegal’s highest election authority, the Constitutional Council, rejected Sall's postponement and ordered the government to set a new date as soon as possible. Government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana earlier this week announced the new date.

Alioune Tine, the founder of the Senegalese think tank Afrikajom Center, said that because of the delay, the candidates with the most financial resources will likely benefit from this shorter window.

“It’s going to be a hard-fought battle,” said Tine, adding that there is no clear favorite.

Most of the campaign ahead and the vote itself will take place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the pious fast from dawn till dusk. Ramadan is expected to begin at sundown on Sunday, depending on the sighting of the moon.

Senegal has majority Muslim population.

The front-runners will likely be former Prime Minister Amadou Ba as the ruling party's choice, and imprisoned Bassirou Diomaye Faye, a lesser known candidate who gained popularity as the chief of the dissolved PASTEF party.

Diomaye Faye has been behind bars for nearly a year but is due to be released in time for elections after the president passed a decree to exonerate political prisoners.

He has stepped in for opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, also in prison and who has been barred from running. In June, Sonko was charged with corrupting youth and sentenced to two years in prison.

Among the other candidates is a former mayor of Dakar, Khalifa Sall, who is running for the fourth time and another former prime minister, Idrissa Seck.

The only woman candidate is Anta Babacar Ngom, the head of Sedima, one of the country’s biggest food companies.

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This story has been corrected to show that the first name of the founder of the Senegalese think tank Afrikajom Center is Alioune Tine, not Aliou.

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AP Africa news: https://apnews.com/hub/africa