On March 20, 38 percent of Senegalese voters participated in a constitutional referendum that President Macky Sall chose to initiate halfway through his first presidential term. Of those who voted, 63 percent approved proposed amendments to Senegal’s constitution that were promoted by the president and his ruling coalition as 15 major propositions “to modernize the political regime, reinforce good governance and consolidate rule of law.” The propositions included reducing the presidential term from seven to five years, lowering barriers to independent candidacy in all types of elections, designating the leader of the largest parliamentary party as “head of opposition” and increasing the number of Constitutional Council members while diversifying their mode of appointment. These amendments might further democratic consolidation in Senegal, which has long enjoyed a reputation as a beacon of democracy in the region. But the politics of the referendum have been more complex than a mere “up or down” vote on strengthening certain aspects of Senegalese democracy.
Senegal is no stranger to multiparty elections or constitutional referenda. Most recently, Sall became president in 2012, after defeating Abdoulaye Wade, who was pursuing a constitutionally controversial third term. After being denied approval from the National Assembly to run for a third term, Wade successfully appealed to the presidentially appointed Constitutional Council to permit his candidacy.
Wade’s third term campaign sparked a popular urban opposition movement led by hip hop artists known as the June 23 Movement and Y’en A Marre. The activism of these groups and of other presidential candidates and empowered citizens acting on their own amplified the debate on limiting presidential power.