Senegal will head to the polls Sunday to vote in a tightly contested presidential race that has fired up political tensions and tested one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.
The presidential election will take place after much uncertainty following President Macky Sall’s unsuccessful effort to delay the Feb. 25 vote until the end of the year, sparking violent protests.
In the latest turn of events leading up to Sunday’s vote, top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was released from prison last week, triggering jubilant celebrations on the streets of Dakar and renewed excitement about the contest.
Sunday’s election is set to be Senegal’s fourth democratic transfer of power since it gained independence from France in 1960. The country is viewed as a pillar of stability in a region that has seen dozens of coups and attempted coups in recent years.
There are 19 candidates in the race, the highest number in Senegal’s history. These include a former prime minister, a close ally of Sonko who was barred from running and a former mayor of Dakar. A runoff between the leading candidates is widely expected.
Despite the violent upheavals in recent months, analysts say unemployment is the chief concern for a majority of young Senegalese.
Analysts say Amadou Ba, a former prime minister, and Bassirou Diomaye Faye, whom Sonko backs, are likely to emerge among the front-runners. Faye was also freed from prison last week, in time to spend the final days of the run-up to Sunday’s vote on the campaign trail.
Sonko was disqualified from the ballot in January because of a prior conviction for defamation, Senegal’s highest election authority said. Senegal was gripped by deadly unrest last summer, when protesters took to the streets over concerns that Sall would seek a third term in office. Constitutional reforms prohibit a president from serving more than two consecutive terms, as decided by a 2016 referendum. Sall eventually ruled out a third term.
Other contenders for top spots in the race are Idrissa Seck, who has run in previous races and served as prime minister some 20 years ago before being sacked and briefly jailed over corruption allegations, and Khalifa Sall, a former mayor of Dakar and longtime opposition figure. Sall and the president are not related. Anta Babacar Ngom, the first woman to run for president in years, is the only female presidential candidate in the race, but few expect her to gain a significant share of the vote.
Sall’s surprise move to release Sonko and Faye has helped to defuse tensions that had escalated in recent months. Election observers say Sunday’s vote is more likely to be peaceful.

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