Senegal will choose its president on 24 February in an atmosphere clouded by suspicions that the incumbent, Macky Sall, has engineered recent electoral reforms to secure a second term in office.
Shortly after the start of the electoral campaign, on 7 February, Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) leader and former president Abdoulaye Wade declared: 'Macky Sall already has his percentage, some say 55%, others say 65%, so why go to these elections? He rigged everything and we understood ... he chose his candidates and defrauded on the electoral file.'
Wade's statements echo the feeling of the opposition and some of the public that changes to the electoral code in July 2018, and legal proceedings against two of Sall's main opponents, were aimed at removing important rivals to facilitate the incumbent's re-election.
Recent reforms have heightened opposition parties' suspicions. Given the large number of candidates (47) during the 2017 legislative elections, the government considered it necessary to limit the number for local, legislative and presidential elections. The aim was to lower election costs and enable citizens to better engage with candidates' campaign programmes.
The two parties that dominated politics for four decades are absent from the upcoming polls
A law was passed on 18 June 2018 establishing a citizen sponsorship system. It requires presidential candidates - whether independent or affiliated to a party or a coalition - to obtain citizen sponsorship (through signatures) of at least 0.8% and at most 1% of the electoral roll in at least seven regions of the country.
This was boycotted by the opposition. Of the 87 original candidates for the presidential election, 27 finally submitted their applications to the Constitutional Council and only seven were validated by the council.
In theory, government's arguments in favour of citizen sponsorship are acceptable. In practice, the introduction of the system barely a few months before the elections - and without consensus - casts doubt about the real objectives of the process.
First, the electoral roll that would have allowed candidates to verify the existence and accuracy of their sponsors' names, preventing signatures from being invalidated, was not made available to them. Second, the software-based data verification mechanism wasn't subjected to consultation among stakeholders. Finally, the lack of explanation of the reasons for certain rejections has increased the feeling of a lack of transparency among the opposition and sectors of the public.
Unlike 2007 and 2012 when 15 and 14 candidates ran for election, only five will stand in 2019
The review of Article L57 of the electoral code in July 2018 introduced a pre-condition requiring all presidential candidates to be eligible to vote before submitting their candidacies. The opposition sees this as another move to disqualify Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall - two of Sall's main opponents.
Their candidacies were invalidated by the Constitutional Council when they lost their voter status because of their respective convictions for illicit enrichment and embezzlement of public funds. This rejection provoked strong reactions from their supporters.
Karim Wade, the PDS's candidate, was sentenced in 2016 to six years in prison. Khalifa Sall, former mayor of Dakar and leader of the coalition Manko Wattu Senegal, who was excluded from the Socialist Party (PS), was sentenced in 2018 to five years in prison.
Their two parties, which have dominated Senegal's political history for at least four decades, are the main absentees from the upcoming polls. For the first time since 1960, the PS won't participate in a presidential election. Since 2012 its leader Ousmane Tanor Dieng has supported the candidacy of Macky Sall in the form of the Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition.
For the first time since 1960, the Socialist Party won't participate in a presidential election
The PDS, whose leader Abdoulaye Wade has run in all the presidential polls since 1978, won't have a candidate since Karim Wade was disqualified. Unlike the 2007 and 2012 elections, which had 15 and 14 candidates respectively, only five will stand in the 2019 presidential elections.
Macky Sall, who is running for a second term, Idrissa Seck, leader of the Rewmi, and Madické Niang, from the Madické 2019 coalition, are all former senior PDS officials. Two rising figures on the political scene are also in the running - Ousmane Sonko, from the Pastef les Patriotes party, a former tax inspector; and El Hadj Issa Sall, of the Unity and Rally Party (PUR).
As 24 February approaches, suspicions persist and political tensions are rising. The president's refusal to appoint a neutral minister of interior to organise Senegal's elections reinforces this feeling. The current minister, a ruling party member, stated in February last year that he would do his best to ensure Macky Sall's victory.
With the public debate focused on how the elections are being organised, voters are missing out on the chance to make an informed choice about what the candidates have to offer. The current situation shows how important it is to ensure the confidence of all stakeholders in the ballot process.
Free and transparent elections will help consolidate the country's democratic gains. The government agencies responsible for organising the elections - such as the interior ministry and the National Electoral Commission - must do everything in their power to make sure the polls are credible.
Paulin Maurice Toupane, Researcher, Aissatou Kanté, Junior Researcher, Adja Khadidiatou Faye, Junior Fellow, ISS Dakar