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Senegal Votes in an Election That Almost Didn’t Happen

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She had badgered her friends and family to persuade them to vote for a major change of government. And on Friday, Aminata Faye, 22, stood at the front of a stadium in Senegal, in the city of Mbour, waiting to hear the opposition politician who had inspired her — and his presidential candidate — in the last stop in a breakneck campaign.

“They’re the only ones saying they’re going to change the system,” said Ms. Faye, a college student.

The West African nation of Senegal votes for a new president Sunday, in an election that many young people see as a chance to overhaul the political and economic order. And it has been a nail-biting run-up.

Last month, the incumbent president, Macky Sall, had called off the election with only three weeks to go. Then he agreed to hold it after all. And suddenly, last week, he released from jail the pugnacious opposition figure many see as his nemesis — Ousmane Sonko — along with the man Mr. Sonko is backing for president, Bassirou Diomaye Faye.

The whiplash-inducing twists and turns have left many Senegalese relieved that the election is happening at all, and that so far their widely lauded democracy appears to be still intact.

While there are 19 candidates in all, many experts think the election will go to a runoff between Mr. Faye and the governing party candidate, Prime Minister Amadou Ba. It is prohibited to publish opinion polls in Senegal during election season, so there is nothing concrete to indicate who is favored win.

But ask most young people who they are supporting, and they will mention Mr. Sonko, whose name is not even on the ballot.

Thousands of young people flowed into the Mbour stadium to see him on Friday evening, the air filling with the honk of vuvuzelas. Binta Cissé, a 30-year-old cleaner, looked around at the sea of T-shirts bearing the faces of Mr. Sonko and his candidate, Mr. Faye, a 43-year-old former tax inspector.

“We can see ourselves in them,” Ms. Cissé said.

The campaigning has happened at a breakneck pace, and during Ramadan, when most people in this predominantly Muslim country fast during the day. At night, political convoys rushed through the sandy alleyways of Dakar, the coastal capital, pumping out music and slogans and distributing fliers. Posters bearing politicians’ beaming faces were hastily pasted up on roadside billboards.

The prime minister, Mr. Ba, hurriedly quit his position to go on the campaign trail. Mr. Sonko’s protégée, Mr. Faye, immediately hit the road after getting out of jail. He had been held on defamation charges and contempt of court, after he accused magistrates of persecuting Mr. Sonko.

A country on the African continent’s westernmost tip, Senegal has watched as some of its neighbors — like Mali, to the east, and Guinea, to the south — have been overtaken by coups in recent years.

But Senegal, observers say, is different.

It has never had a coup d’état. The country’s powerful Sufi brotherhoods — Muslim communities guided by revered spiritual leaders — are seen as a stabilizing force. Its military prides itself on staying out of politics.

Experts say that while Senegal has been badly damaged by Mr. Sall’s authoritarian turn, the country’s reputation as a democratic outpost in a crisis-hit region has held.

But Senegal faces many of the same problems that have bedeviled its neighbors in West Africa — such as persistent poverty, an education deficit, and a lack of jobs, particularly for young people. These are the issues this election is likely to turn on — and a major reason Mr. Sonko has garnered such a strong youth following.

Over the last decade, 35-year-old Lamine Ndao has watched Senegal’s economy grow under Mr. Sall’s administration — large oil and gas fields have recently been discovered, and major infrastructure projects completed. But he has been left behind, he said.

For 10 years, ever since he received a degree in tourism from a university in Dakar, he’s been looking for a job. And most of his friends are in the same situation, he said — except the ones who joined the political party in power.

“If you have political connections, you can work,” he said as he watched gleaming SUV’s drive by on one of Dakar’s busiest roads a few days before the election. “Do you find that fair? It’s not.”

Young people like Mr. Ndao had been pivotal in assuring Mr. Sall’s ascent to the presidency.

Mr. Sall’s predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, began as a stalwart defender of democracy who promised change and ran for president four times before he was elected — twice. Then he ran for a third term in 2012, arguing that the constitutional two-term limit did not apply to him. But a lively youth movement persuaded hundreds of thousands of young Senegalese to head to the polls, and Mr. Wade lost to Mr. Sall.

Twelve years later, this February, many Senegalese said they were astounded to see Mr. Sall try to call off the election. They were also stunned to see the scenes from Parliament, where police threw out opposition lawmakers so that the bill confirming the cancellation could be pushed through.

Mr. Ndao, the unemployed college graduate, voted for Mr. Sall in 2012. In 2019, he said he felt so disillusioned that he didn’t bother to vote. He said that while he wants to build his life in Senegal, he has been considering risking his life on a rickety boat to Europe, or following the thousands of West Africans now trying to migrate to the United States on circuitous routes via Nicaragua.

He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, he said: He and all his friends are pinning their hopes on the man who has made a career out of excoriating elites, accusing prominent politicians of corruption and promising change: Mr. Sonko.

Nobody can vote for Mr. Sonko, who was barred from running after being convicted of defamation and of corrupting a minor, after a young massage parlor employee accused him of rape. So they will vote for Mr. Faye instead, Mr. Ndao said.

As the light faded over Ouakam, a Dakar suburb, on Tuesday evening, young volunteers from Mr. Sonko’s party handed out free dates and coffee to Muslims breaking the fast.

Bassirou Faye, a 24-year-old bus driver who coincidentally shares the name of the presidential candidate for Mr. Sonko’s party, said that he wasn’t interested in Mr. Sonko at all in the 2019 election. Mr. Sonko came in third, with 16 percent of the vote.

But this time, Mr. Faye said, he would travel the 100 miles to his home city of Bambey just to vote for Mr. Sonko’s candidate.

“Because of all the injustice he has faced, I started following and supporting him,” he said.

Mr. Faye and Mr. Sonko have promised major economic changes, like renegotiating oil and gas contracts, and reforming or leaving the regional currency, which is pegged to the euro.

Analysts say this may scare Senegal’s foreign investors and stall economic progress.

Supporters of Mr. Ba said he was a safe pair of hands who would continue on the same steady trajectory as Mr. Sall, whom many perceive as having overseen orderly progress.

“He’s calm and serene,” said Valéry Kalidou Bonang, a 35-year-old entrepreneur from Kedougou, in Senegal’s east. He said he wanted to see the continuation of Mr. Sall’s program of building infrastructure and improving living conditions, known as Emerging Senegal. “But it’s not a question of the person. It’s a question of the project.”

Mr. Ndao, the tourism graduate, said his father was voting for Mr. Ba, along with many older people who would get up early and go vote, he said, while many young people did not even have voters’ cards.

“Young people are the ones who need change,” he said. “The old ones are on their way out.”

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