ARI on TwitterARI on LinkedinARI on FacebookARI on iTunesARI RSS Feed

Senegal – Expert Briefing

  • Senegal has a semi-presidential system of government
  • The current constitution was adopted on 20 March 2016 following a popular referendum
  • The president is elected by an absolute majority (50% plus one vote) while seats in the unicameral parliament are determined both by direct election and proportional representation
  • The National Assembly was enlarged from 150 to 165 seats in January 2016
  • Legislative elections are held every five years


On 30 July 2017, Senegalese will vote to elect a new National Assembly. The outgoing parliament was dominated by members of the Benno Bokk Yaakaar (BBY) coalition that brought Macky Sall to power when he defeated Abdoulaye Wade in March 2012. That election marked the country’s third presidential transition, and the second at the ballot box. These polls will demonstrate the strength of Sall’s popular mandate and his likely prospects for the 2019 presidential elections.

Senegal has a history of political stability. The country has never experienced a military coup. A gradual process of political liberalisation prompted the shift from a single-party regime (1960-1974) to a system where only three parties were permitted (1974-1981) and, finally, to multi-party politics. Throughout the 1980s, democratic institutions and practices began to take root, a process by no means uniform or without challenge, but rather driven by political activism and post-election protests.

Abdou Diouf, who inherited the presidency upon the resignation of Léopold Sédar Senghor in January 1981, instigated a series of institutional reforms, primarily as a result of violent unrest following the 1988 elections. Diouf’s changes made it possible for the country to undergo a peaceful transition of power in 2000, when a competitive election brought Abdoulaye Wade and his party, the Parti démocratique sénégalais (PDS), to power.

While Wade’s election ended nearly 40 years of political hegemony under the Parti socialiste (PS), his increasingly authoritarian behaviour following re-election in 2007 prompted growing concerns about the future of Senegalese democracy. In the lead-up to the 2012 elections, the public responded to signs that President Wade might be grooming his son Karim as his successor. Suspicion was raised by Wade neutralising other possible heirs, including Macky Sall, who served as prime minister 2004-2007, and who left the PDS to create his own party, the Alliance pour la République (APR) in 2008.

In late 2010, Wade proposed a constitutional amendment to reduce the percentage of votes required for a first round electoral victory and to create the position of vice-president. Many interpreted the latter as being designed to enable Karim to succeed his father. This provoked an unprecedented popular uprising during the summer of 2011. Principally led by social movements, including the Mouvement du 23 juin (“M23”), the upheaval prevented further abuses of power. Forced into a run-off in the February 2012 presidential election when he failed to win an outright majority in the first round, Wade lost to Sall, who obtained 65.8% of votes cast in the second round.

In legislative elections held in July 2012, Sall’s coalition Benno Bokk Yakaar won 53% of the vote, taking 119 of the 150 seats in the National Assembly. Once in office, Sall pledged to reduce the length of the presidential term from seven to five years. On 20 March 2016, fifteen constitutional amendments were approved by 63% of Senegalese voting in a popular referendum. Changes to the term length, however, will take effect only from the next presidential election in 2019.

As the country approaches the 30 July 2017 legislative elections, the political atmosphere has become tense. An initial controversy concerns the revision of electoral rules. Since 1983, parliament has been elected under a mixed system, which combines proportional representation with directly elected seats by simple majority. In January 2016, députés adopted a law that increased the number of seats from 150 to 165. Henceforth, 60 MPs will be elected on a national list according to a proportional system using the largest remainder method. The rest will be directly elected based on a plurality: 90 seats by multi-member constituencies based on Senegal’s 45 départements and 15 seats determined by 8 constituencies representing the diaspora.

On 11 August 2016, the National Assembly adopted a draft law on the partial revision of the electoral roll, despite concerns expressed by some opposition parties. In response, and in an effort to demonstrate its commitment to transparency, the government decided to couple the revision of the electoral roll with the issuance of an ECOWAS biometric identity card. The primary aim of this initaitive is to allow residents of the region to travel freely between ECOWAS member states. However, in Senegal, the new ID card will also serve to identify eligible voters in the 2017 legislative elections. Acknoweldging a delay in issuing ECOWAS IDs, President Sall approached the Conseil constitutionnel to rule on the validity of permitting the use of other documentation. The opposition responded with strongly worded statements and protests, but Senegal’s most senior judges concurred with the head of state.

A total of 47 party/coalition lists have been confirmed compared with 24 in the 2012 legislative elections. The registration of a record number of candidates raised fears that voting might be too complex and slow, especially when the opposition failed to form a united front against President Sall’s BBY coalition. Voters might have had to take 47 lists into the polling booth, but the electoral commission and contending parties/coalitions eventually reached an agreement whereby the voter is able to choose a minimum of five ballot papers.

BBY – comprising Macky Sall’s APR, the PS, and the Alliance des forces de progrès (AFP), led by a former prime minister, Moustapha Niasse – will be battling to maintain a majority in the National Assembly. The Mayor of Dakar, Khalifa Sall – who has been placed in custody for allegedly embezzling of public funds (charges he denies) – is leading the national list of another coalition, Manko Taxawu Senegal. Despite his advanced age (91 years), Wade is top of the list for Wattu Senegal, principally made up of members of the PDS. Collectively, the opposition will hope to deprive BBY of a majority in order to force President Sall into a government of cohabitation.

Dr Mamadou Bodian received his PhD from the University of Florida. He is a Project Coordinator for the Trans-Saharan Elections Programme (TSEP) and a member of the Sahel Research Group. His research focuses on African foreign policy, elections, and democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa with a particular focus on Senegal, Mali and Niger.