07:49 pm
23 October 2016

Senegal holds vote on sweeping constitutional change. Here’s why it matters

Senegal holds a referendum Sunday on sweeping constitutional reforms, including cutting the presidential term from seven to five years.

Why is it controversial and what will the result mean for the country? Why does the president want to reduce his own term limit?

Senegal’s leader Macky Sall was elected in 2012 partly on a platform to reduce the presidential mandate from seven years to five.

His predecessor Abdoulaye Wade conceded defeat after pushing the nation into crisis with a controversial third term bid.

In March last year, Sall had said reducing his own mandate would set an example within Africa, where many leaders cling to power beyond their allotted term.

But Senegal’s top court rejected his proposal this February, triggering a referendum that would allow the reforms to come into force once Sall leaves office in 2019—in the event of a “Yes” vote, that is.


Who are the ‘No’ camp?

Opposition parties and several civil society groups are urging Senegalese to vote “No”, saying Sall reneged on his promise to leave office early and criticising the referendum as a cop-out.

The “No” camp has clashed sometimes violently with “Yes” supporters in a week of campaigning, with both sides alleging corruption, spreading misinformation and influence peddling against the other.

“No” activists accuse the government of misusing state funds to finance its campaign, which has seen giant “Yes” posters appear on billboards across the country.

How did the debate get so personal?

The referendum has become a Yes/No vote on Sall’s popularity, eclipsing more than a dozen other proposed points of reform to the constitution.

Sall has been accused of everything from secretly manoeuvring for a third term to using the referendum as Trojan horse for gay marriage. Homosexuality is stigmatised and widely reviled in Senegal.

The president has responded to such attacks by describing them as evidence the “No” campaign has nothing of substance left to say.

“They aren’t exactly criticising my economic record,” Sall quipped during the campaign.

What are the other proposed reforms?

The other proposals include a more defined role for the leader of the opposition, including the right to be consulted on matters of national security.

Independent candidates would be allowed to run in local elections for the first time, giving civil society groups a stronger platform.

Another reform states that “natural resources belong to the people”, meaning that Senegalese would have the right to the proceeds of commodities or fossil fuel deposits extracted within the country enshrined in law.

Finally, the reforms propose the establishment of an advisory council to consider decentralisation and the reinforcement of checks and balances on the executive by parliament and the constitutional court.

What happens next?

Voting begins at 0800 GMT and ends at 1800 GMT on Sunday for up to five million Senegalese, though technical problems with producing voter ID cards will prevent 200,000 from exercising their democratic rights.

Partial results are expected to emerge a few hours later.