The postponement of Senegal’s presidential election opens a “period of uncertainty”, the European Union has said, and the United States called for a swift new date for free polls ahead of opposition protests in the capital, Dakar, that were dispersed by police.
“The European Union … calls on all actors to work … for the staging of a transparent, inclusive and credible election as soon as possible,” EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali said in a statement on Sunday.
On Saturday, Senegal’s President Macky Sall indefinitely postponed the election scheduled for February 25.
In a televised address to the nation, Sall announced he had cancelled the relevant electoral law, citing a dispute over the candidate list.
He said he signed a decree abolishing a November 2023 measure that had set the original election date, but did not give a new date.
Last month, Senegal’s Constitutional Council excluded some prominent opposition members from the list of candidates.
France, the former colonial power in the country, called for a vote “as soon as possible”, saying that Senegal should end “uncertainty”.
“We call on authorities to end the uncertainty about the electoral calendar so the vote can be held as soon as possible, under the rules of Senegalese democracy,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
Opposition presidential candidates said they would launch their campaigns in defiance of the postponement.
Senegal has traditionally been seen as a rare example of democratic stability in West Africa, which has been hit by a series of coups in recent years including in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Tear gas fired at protesters
Police fired tear gas to disperse opposition supporters in Dakar on Sunday, in the first clashes after Sall’s announcement, the AFP news agency reported.
Men and women, who were waving Senegalese flags or wearing the jersey of the national football team, had converged at a roundabout on one of the capital’s main roads at the call of a number of opposition candidates.
Police then pursued the fleeing protesters into surrounding neighbourhoods, with some in the crowd hurling rocks at the officers.
Reporting from the outskirts of Dakar, Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque said all 19 opposition candidates had asked their supporters to gather in the area.
“There’s a sense that the security forces do not want any gathering. But for the members of the opposition, until the decree [cancelling the elections] is published … then [it] is not in place,” Haque said.
“Some of the opposition figures that I spoke to said it’s a ploy for him to cling onto power, others describe it as a constitutional coup,” Haque added.
“A motorcyclist … shouted: ‘We’re going to burn everything down’. From every protester that we spoke to, they feel angry at that decision; they feel robbed from their ability to express themselves in this election cancelled by Sall.”
Some 200 protesters blocked traffic on a main thoroughfare in Dakar with a makeshift barricade of burning tyres, the Reuters news agency reported.
Further protests are planned outside parliament on Monday.
‘Inclusive and credible elections’
The US Department of State noted Senegal’s “strong tradition of democracy and peaceful transitions of power” and urged “all participants in [the] electoral process to engage peacefully to swiftly set a new date and the conditions for a timely, free and fair election”.
Senegalese politicians must “prioritise dialogue and collaboration for transparent, inclusive and credible elections”, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc said in a statement that called on authorities to “expedite the various processes to set a new date for the elections”.
Opponents suspect that the president’s camp fear the defeat of his anointed successor, Prime Minister Amadou Ba.
Senegal cannot “indulge in a fresh crisis” after deadly political violence in March 2021 and June 2023, Sall said on Saturday as he announced a “national dialogue” to organise “a free, transparent and inclusive election”.
The country’s electoral code states that at least 80 days must pass between the announcement of a new presidential vote and polling day – theoretically putting the soonest possible new date in late April at the earliest.
Sall’s presidential term is supposed to end on April 2.
Analysts say the crisis is putting one of Africa’s most stable democracies to the test at a time when the region is struggling with the recent surge in coups.
Senegal has been embroiled in political tensions as a result of deadly clashes involving opposition supporters and the disqualification of two opposition leaders ahead of the crucial vote.