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Senegalese lawmakers were forcibly ejected from parliament after a vote to postpone this month’s presidential vote until the end of the year, keeping President Macky Sall in office and leaving opposition members warning of a “constitutional coup”.
The vote in the west African country late on Monday followed a lengthy parliamentary session that concluded with police in riot gear removing a group of opposition politicians from the building in the capital Dakar.
Sall, who has reached his two-term presidential limit, shocked Senegal over the weekend by announcing that the February 26 election would be delayed, citing concerns about how some candidates had been approved. Analysts suggested it was because the ruling party feared they would lose the vote.
Parliament’s ratification of the postponement leaves Senegal in limbo and threatens to jeopardise a democracy that has gained a reputation for political stability in a region rocked by coups and violent insurgencies in recent years.
The delay bill was introduced by an opposition lawmaker from a party that voted alongside Sall’s ruling coalition in the eventual vote. One MP from the president’s party requested a one-year delay, but lawmakers adopted a late amendment to schedule the vote for December 15.
About a dozen opposition MPs then took centre stage to protest, halting the process by two hours before they were escorted out by police. Guy Marius Sagna, one of the MPs, told reporters that Sall was attempting a “putsch” and accused parliamentary leaders of seeking to stop debate on the matter.
Senegalese police earlier fired tear gas at protesters who had gathered outside parliament, with armed officers also scattered across the capital in an effort to deter demonstrators.
The communications ministry also cut mobile internet services, claiming it was clamping down on hateful messages spreading on social media. Sall’s government also cut the internet last year in an effort to damp support for protests in favour of Ousmane Sonko, leader of a now-banned political party who has been imprisoned on insurrection charges that his supporters say were trumped up.
Yet street protests on the scale of last year, when Sonko was convicted in a separate case, have not materialised.
Analysts said the move to postpone the vote was because the ruling party was rattled and needed more time. Sall last year dropped his contentious bid for a third term as president before his prime minister, Amadou Ba, was chosen as the ruling party candidate to replace him.
But it has become increasingly clear that Ba faces a strong challenger in opposition candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who is backed by Sonko, and that he would struggle to win the presidency.
An ally of the prime minister told the Financial Times that the ruling party was in “serious trouble” and suggested Ba might have to resign.
François Conradie, an analyst at Oxford Economics Africa, said in a note to clients: “Our reading is that Sall became convinced that Ba was going to lose to Bassirou Diomaye Faye, the radical running as Sonko’s stand-in, and chose to postpone the election to play for time.”