Voters in Senegal are set to elect a president on Feb. 24 from a mere five candidates, including incumbent and frontrunner Macky Sall, an official said.
Analysts believe President Sall, 57, has high chances of winning a second term, after two prominent opposition figures were barred from running.
They are the former mayor of the capital Dakar, Khalifa Sall, and Karim Wade, a former minister and son of former President Abdoulaye Wade.
Idrissa Seck, 59, a former prime minister (2002-2004) and candidate of the Rewmi party, now counts as Macky Sall’s main rival.
Also in the running are opposition parliamentarian Ousmane Sonko of the Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) party; El Hadj Sall, the leader of the Party of Unity and Gathering (PUR); and independent candidate Madicke Niang, a former foreign minister.
Both Khalifa Sall, who has no family relation to the current president, and Karim Wade were barred in January by the Constitutional Council over their convictions for misuse of public funds.
Khalifa Sall, one of Senegal’s most popular politicians, was in 2018 sentenced to five years in prison for corruption, a verdict he says was politically motivated.
The 63-year-old’s attempt to appeal his sentence was denied.
Karim Wade, 50, who had been groomed to succeed his father and was supposed to be the candidate of Senegal’s largest opposition party, the Senegalese Democratic Party.
He was in 2015 sentenced to six years in jail for “illicit enrichment” while working as a minister during his father’s presidency.
A year later, President Sall pardoned Wade, who had been in detention since 2013.
The two exclusions are likely to clear the path to Macky Sall’s re-election, analysts say.
“The legal proceedings are regarded as being aimed at removing important rivals,” Paulin Toupane, Aissatou Kante and Adja Faye, analysts at African research organisation the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said in a joint report.
“As Feb. 24 approaches, suspicions persist and political tensions are rising,” the researchers said.
Macky Sall has been leading the politically stable former French colony, which is often hailed as one of Africa’s model democracies, since 2012.
During his first term in office, the flag-bearer of the ruling Benno Yakaar coalition has been lauded for implementing socio-economic reforms, including investment in infrastructure, education, the health sector and job creation.
The government has been popular in Senegal for the social grants it has doled out to poor families, and this policy is likely to secure Macky Sall many votes in this year’s poll, particularly in rural areas.
“Many beneficiaries are eager to profit from the promised social and infrastructure achievements of this programme’s second phase,” political Commentator, Omar Dieng, said,
It therefore comes as little surprise that Macky Sall has focused his election campaign on the promise to implement a second phase of his socio-economic development programme.
The president has also been lauded for creating the national anti-fraud and corruption authority (OFNAC), set up to investigate corruption among high-ranking government officials, which has led to several convictions.
Many of the West African nation’s almost seven million registered voters have, however, become suspicious of Macky Sall’s political motives.
“The president’s refusal to appoint a neutral minister of the interior to organise Senegal’s elections reinforces this feeling.
“The current minister, a ruling party member, stated in February 2018 that he would do his best to ensure Macky Sall’s victory,” according to Toupane, Kante and Faye.
Seck, meanwhile, has garnered the backing of many opposition parties, as well as support from the camps of Wade and Khalifa Sall, who have officially supported him since being barred.
Seck, who unsuccessfully competed for the presidency in 2007 and 2012, has pledged to focus on good governance, economic growth and security if elected to the highest office.
Like many other top politicians in Senegal, Seck has a questionable past.
He was detained in 2005 for corruption in connection with a road infrastructure project – charges he denied – but released due to lack of evidence some six months later.
Senegalese voters will elect their president between 08:00 GMT and 18:00 GMT at more than 15,000 polling stations across the country.
The poll will be monitored by observer missions from the EU, the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Provisional results are expected within three days of the election. A candidate needs to garner more than 50 per cent of the votes to win in the first round.