Senegal Decides: Economic Boom Versus High Unemployment
Voting is underway in Senegal in an election that pitches incumbent president, Macky Sall’s economic growth against high unemployment and high cost of living.
At polling centers across the capital Dakar, there have been long queues of voters as early as 8am. About 6.5 million people are registered to vote, with economy tipped to be the single biggest deciding factor.
Under Macky Sall, who has given himself “the builder of modern Senegal” title, economy is in robust shape thanks to an ambitious reform and development plan. Along Dakar’s highways, giant billboards sponsored by his campaign display images of new roads, modern bridges, modern city in Diamniadio, high speed train linking Dakar to the new airport and other new projects implemented by his administration.
According to the World Bank, Senegal’s annual economic growth has held at over 6% since 2015, accelerating from 6.2% in 2016 to 7.2% in 2017, one of the highest rates in Africa. The institution expects robust real GDP growth in 2019-21, supported by infrastructure investment and rising industrial and agricultural output.
Macky Sall and his supporters are relying on these success stories to cruise to victory in this election. At his last campaign rally held in Dakar Friday and attended by tens of thousands of supporters, he promised more prosperity and said “victory in the first round is indisputable.”
Mass Gueye, a local drummer and Sall supporter tells The Chronicle that he expects the president to win easily thanks to his records. “Senegalese voters are very wise. When they vote, they vote for the interest of the country and its people. Macky Sall has saved this country from underdevelopment to a Senegal the whole world is today proud of. Our people are not stupid. When they go out to cast their ballots, they’ll vote for Macky because his records are there or everyone to see,” he says.
Betty Sarr alias Bicha, a college student is also confident of Sall’s victory. “The noise makers only make noise just for cheap popularity, but when reality kicks in, there’ll be only one winner and that’s Macky Sall. It’s in the interest of our country that we give him a second mandate. Look at his infrastructural development. He inherited a bad economy and look at where we are today.”
But the behind the veneer of economic boom and prosperity, opponents accused Sall of wasteful spending and turning Senegal into a debt-ridden country. According to official figures, Senegal’s debt has increased from 47.8% of the rebased GDP in 2016 to 48.3% in 2017, while debt service remains high at 32.6% of fiscal revenues. There are concerns that the debt may reach 49.4% of GDP in 2018, partly due to the issuance of a Eurobond (worth $2.2 billion in March 2018).
Among President Sall’s two main contenders is Ousmane Sonko, a 44-year-old former tax officer who first came to the limelight in 2016 when he became a whistleblower, denouncing corrupt practices in the Senegalese elite. The youngest candidate in the race, his campaign rallies had attracted large crowds thanks to his anti-establishment image, youthfulness and dedicated social media presence.
At campaign rallies, he referred to President’s infrastructural projects as misplaced priorities and questioned whether Senegal need expensive fancy projects when the average Senegalese citizens struggle to eat one meal a day.
The opposition often use high unemployment and rising prices under the Sall administration to fire up young voters and their spur frustration. One in two job seekers in Senegal is aged under 35, the same age group that forms overwhelming majority of voters.
Many of the young voters often frown at the economic growth and question its relevance to those at the lower rung of the economic ladder.
“You listen to every statement from Macky Sall and his people and all you hear is economic growth this, economic growth that. Economic growth for who? Macky Sall and his family and their friends for sure. I don’t see anybody around me whose life has changed because of this so-called economic growth. Macky Sall’s economic growth is a lie,” says Lauz, a second time voter.
Coumba was a campaign organizer for Sall when he was vying for the 2012 presidency. But late last year, she decided to switch allegiance and had voted for Edrisa Seck, another main opposition leader.
“The thought of having Macky Sall as president for the second time is scary. This guy promised heaven and earth in 2012. He promised to look out for the poor people. What we have now is a president who is so out of touch with us. He works for the rich people and against the rest of us. Time is up. He has to go and he will, and then we can have a Senegal that belongs to all of us, even the poor people.”
Last few weeks have seen unprecedented mobilization and engagement by young voters, indicating a major shift in youth engagement in political affairs in Senegal which was first noticed during the 2012 election. For most of them, their interest and participation in the electoral process is triggered by the issue of employment.
“We’re not asking for much. All we want is the creation of job opportunities for the young Senegalese people. We’ve suffered enough and we’re sick and tired of politicians lying to us and using us to get elected, and once they are in office, we’re not their priority anymore. I’ve voted but honestly, I did just for the sake of doing it. I don’t believe any of these candidates will create job for me’” said Medoune Faye, a third year university student.
Adja Yasadi Mbengue, another student does not have a voter’s card and will not vote in this election.
“Honestly I have no regrets at all. People keep saying voting is good citizenship. I don’t see it that way. In less than one year I’ll graduate from university. Sometimes I feel like staying in school forever because at least I’ll be busy with my studies. But what will I do after school? There’s no job out there for people like me. I’ll likely sit at home doing nothing after my graduation. So why should I waste my time and money to vote for politicians who will never care if I work or not, if I live or die? I’m not interested in this election.”
Two of the most prominent opposition leaders were barred from running in the election. Khalifa Sall, the former mayor of Dakar is serving a five-year jail term on corruption charges, while Karim Wade, son of the former president Abdoulaye Wade, is barred from returning to Senegal from Qatar where has gone into ‘exile’ after serving a jail term for corruption. Both of them say their cases are politically-motivated.
Polls will close 6pm local time when vote counting will commence. Official results are expected to be announced on Friday. A candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the votes to be declared the winner in the first round. A runoff between the two leading candidates will be held on March 24 if there’s no outright winner in the first round.