Senegal Forges Ahead With Vote That Will Exclude Top Contender

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(Bloomberg) -- Senegal is readying for elections that will exclude Ousmane Sonko, the politician who posed the biggest threat to the ruling coalition.

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The West African nation’s voters will pick from 20 contenders, which the Constitutional Council cleared Saturday to run for office in Feb. 25 polls.

Prime Minister Amadou Ba is President Macky Sall’s hand-picked successor to lead the Benno Bokk Yakaar ruling coalition into the vote. Known as a technocrat, Ba had previously served as finance minister and foreign affairs minister. Under a previous administration, he had also been tax chief.

While his selection has drawn fault lines within the ruling coalition, the opposition has been weakened by a litany of legal troubles. Sonko, the incarcerated leader of the Pastef party, had been the candidate to beat until Saturday’s decision to exclude him. That leaves Bassirou Faye, the secretary-general of the dissolved party, as a key stand-in candidate, even though he’s also in jail.

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Any opposition candidate that gets the full backing of Sonko, a 49-year-old former tax inspector, would now benefit from his soaring popularity among Senegalese youth — many of whom believe his legal charges are politically motivated. The government has denied the claim.

Faye was retained in the list of final candidates, which includes Habib Sy, a former minister who had also been endorsed by Sonko. Khalifa Sall, once a popular mayor of Dakar, the capital, and Idrissa Seck, a former prime minister who sought to appease popular tensions in the run-up to the vote, have also been cleared to run. Seck came second in 2019 elections, with 21%.

Read more: Why Normally Stable Senegal Is Wracked by Unrest: QuickTake

But Sonko’s exclusion could also spark popular unrest in a country that’s poised to be one of sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest-growing economies this year as it readies to become an oil and gas producer. The firebrand politician was disqualified after the Supreme Court upheld a six-month suspended prison sentence, rendering him ineligible, the constitutional council said in its statement.

Sonko was convicted of libel for accusing Tourism Minister Mame Mbaye Niang of embezzlement in a Nov. 2022 televised address.

Karim Wade, who ran several ministries between 2000 and 2012, while his father, Abdoulaye Wade, was the country’s president, was also rejected as a candidate. The council deemed that he still held his French citizenship when he filed his candidacy.

--With assistance from Momar Niang.

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