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Senegal’s elections set for December by parliament after Sall decision

DAKAR, Senegal — Senegal’s parliament voted late on Monday to postpone elections for almost a year, to Dec. 15, amid concerns over the state of democracy in this West African nation.

President Macky Sall’s decision to delay the vote, originally scheduled for Feb. 25, sent hundreds of protesters to the streets over the weekend, many of whom were dispersed with tear gas, and prompted international calls for a timeline for elections to be held quickly. Members of opposition parties who objected to the parliament’s vote were forcefully removed from the chambers by police.

The delay is a blow to Senegal’s reputation as a democracy stalwart in a region beset by military coups and raises the specter of civil strife in this West African nation, which has been troubled by protests in recent years after one of Sall’s chief rivals was jailed.

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“This is a real aberration on the political, institutional and constitutional levels,” said Alioune Tine, a rights expert and founder of the AfrikaJom Center, a Dakar-based research organization. “What has happened is a real political fraud — a serious, serious and immoral institutional breakdown.”

Sall, in his address to the nation Saturday, reiterated that he did not plan to run for a third term but said that his decision was driven by disputes over the electoral list and allegations of corruption against the constitutional court.

The party of Karim Wade, whose father, Abdoulaye Wade, was Sall’s predecessor, accused the court of corruption after it blocked him from running because of his dual nationality (his mother is French). Top contenders to succeed Sall — most notably, popular opposition figure Ousmane Sonko — have been barred by the courts from running.

Sall’s spokesman Yoro Dia compared the situation to the Watergate scandal, saying that infighting between the court and the legislative branch would have meant that the legitimacy of Senegal’s next president, like that of President Richard M. Nixon, would “inevitably be tainted by legitimate suspicion.”

“President Macky Sall is to be congratulated on having taken his responsibilities to save our democracy from a Watergate,” Dia said in a message to The Washington Post. “A statesman is more concerned about the next generation than the next election or curve of emotions.”

In Dakar on Tuesday morning, there were no signs of further demonstrations but a sense of deep frustration could be found among residents who said they felt betrayed by their government and had been ready to vote in the elections.

“I feel sorry for my country now,” said Assane Dia, the president of traders in a market in the capital. “I am really sad. … We need to organize ourselves.”

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Dia, 51, said he worried that Sall wanted to hold onto power and that this was just the beginning of decisions the president would make, without the legitimacy of or support from the people.

“I was among those who elected Macky Sall,” said Oustaz Diaby Ndiongue, 60, an imam in Grand Dakar. “I had faith in him. But I regret it now.”

Tine and other democracy advocates said respect for the constitutional court has historically been strong and that Sall and the lawmakers’ choice to now question the court’s decisions constitutes a “manipulation of institutions” that have caused a loss of confidence “across all segments of society,” including young people, religious leaders, unions and civil society.

They said Sall’s decision to postpone the elections undermines the state of democracy in Senegal at a moment when its history of peaceful transitions of power is especially important for the region. West Africa is deeply divided, with three countries led by military juntas — Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso — last month announcing their withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, which had sharply condemned the coups in those nations.

ECOWAS, a key regional body in which Senegal is a leading member, issued a carefully worded statement following Sall’s announcement saying that it “takes note” of the decision to postpone the election and urges “dialogue and collaboration for transparent, inclusive and credible elections.”

The African Union expressed its concern in a statement calling for elections to be held “as soon as possible,” while the U.S. State Department said that it acknowledged “allegations of irregularities, but we are deeply concerned about the disruption to the Presidential electoral calendar.”

“We urge all participants in Senegal’s electoral process to engage peacefully in the important effort to swiftly set a new date and the conditions for a timely, free and fair election,” said the statement from the Bureau of African Affairs.

Chason reported from Niamey, Niger.

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