COME Feb 24, the people of Senegal will head for the polling stations to vote in the country’s scheduled presidential elections. This will be the 11th presidential elections in Senegal’s 59-year history.

In all that time, only four men have held the presidency — Leopold Senghor for 20 years, Abdou Diouf for 19 years, Abdoulaye Wade for 12 years, and Macky Sall for the last seven years.

The inconsistent number of years for a presidential term only appeared in 1991 when President Abdou Diouf managed to push through a constitutional amendment that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. In 2016, however, President Macky Sall was able to again amend the constitution to reduce the term of office to five years and set a limit of only two consecutive terms that any individual may hold the position.

This election will be the first time that the constitutional amendment will take effect, as Macky Sall gears himself for a possible second term in office. This election is also the first time that presidential candidates are expected to clear the 65,000 signature threshold in order to be eligible to stand as a candidate — another effect of the 2016 constitutional amendment.

For a country with less than 15 million people, Senegal is a highly-politicised country. Every Senegalese has a strong view of the local politics and makes no secret of it. Yet, despite the fact that politics is in the blood of every self-respecting citizen, only once has this country seen a less than peaceful transition of power. And even then there was no massive conflict or fatal rioting on the streets, the likes of many other African nations.

Leopold Senghor handed over the reins of the country to Abdou Diouf in 1970, resigning after his 20-year run. Diouf, in his turn, surrendered the office to Wade when it was clear that Wade had managed to garner more than 58 per cent of the votes in the second round of voting in 2000.

Senegalese President Macky Sall

And after 12 years in power, Wade was defeated by a former prime minister under his administration, current president Sall.

The new electoral requirement of at least 10 per cent of the total voter registration before any individual can be accepted as a presidential candidate means that there should be fewer names on the ballot paper this February. In 2007, when the last presidential elections were held, there were 14 names for voters to choose from.

The date of submission of papers for the candidates was Dec 26 last year, after which it was the task of the Interior Ministry to sift through all the signatures to determine on irregularities, double-counting, and eligibility.

By Jan 2, the Constitutional Council, which is the highest deciding body for presidential and legislative elections, declared that only five candidates are eligible outright.

Three others were given a few days to respond to a query from the Council before they could stand for elections. A

All this, from a pool of 27 hopefuls that had submitted their papers to vie for Senegal’s highest political post.

Why should the Senegal presidential elections hold so much fascination for this author? Other than the obvious — of now having lived and mixed with the people of its capital city for nearly a year — there is also a more interesting reason for closely following the presidential elections.

Senegal recently introduced an identity card for citizens aged 5 years old and above. The ID card, issued under the watchful eye of the Ministry of the Interior, is produced by a Malaysian company — Iris Corporation — and contains all security features and information needed to ensure voter eligibility.

The ID card acts as an identity card on one side, and as a voter registration information on the other, allowing the validation of signatures for the presidential candidates to be done within a matter of days, rather than weeks or months.

For those not familiar with Iris Corporation, it was the first company in the world to create the electronic chip that we now carry in our Malaysian passports. In 1998, when the ePassport was rolled out, Malaysians travelled with cutting-edge technology, proudly using the autogate whenever we entered or left the country.

Today, nearly all countries use this ePassport.

So, what are the chances of Sall retaining his presidency? Many believe that the incumbent stands a very strong chance of continuing a second term, provided that he can win outright the first round of the presidential elections. Throughout Senegal’s five decades of democratic elections, no incumbent president has ever been able to secure victory in a second round of electoral voting. Every single time a second round of voting takes place, the sitting president will lose in the elections.

Other notable hopefuls include Karim Wade, son of former President Abdoulaye Wade; long-term opposition leader Idrissa Seck; former head of the tax department Ousmane Sonko; and jailed mayor of Dakar city, Khalifa Sall.

There are 6.7 million registered voters in Senegal for these presidential elections. If we go by the 51 per cent of voter turnout in 2012, there should be at least 3.5 million people exercising their constitutional rights to vote for their next president. Whatever happens, Senegal is hoping that it will be yet another peaceful presidential election.

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