Senegal’s controversial constitutional referendum – how much of a change?

On March 20th Senegal held a referendum on constitutional amendments introduced by President Macky Sall. The yes- and the no-campaigns competed vigorously in the weeks leading up to the vote and ultimately the yes-campaign backed by President Sall won with 62.7 percent of votes. Voter turn-out was 38.3 percent. The referendum was widely seen as a test of President Sall’s popularity. Proponents of the no-campaign included the youth group Y’en a marre and even members of Sall’s own coalition such as the mayor of Dakar Khalifa Sall.

Key among the newly passed amendments is the one reducing the duration of presidential terms from 7 to 5 years (art. 27). This was a campaign promise by President Sall when he ran and was elected in 2012 – and paradoxically the most controversial element of the referendum. The change will only apply to the next mandate, meaning that Macky Sall will serve out his current 7-year term. Opponents say this is going back on his campaign promise of shortening his present mandate – calling it Wakh Wakhet (going back on his word). Also, critics are suspicious that Sall may use the constitutional change to restart the presidential term-counter at 0 and claim he can run for two more terms, as did former President Abdoulaye Wade before him. Macky Sall and his supporters point to an opinion by the Constitutional Court that the duration of the presidential mandate could not be changed mid-stream. They also underscore the wording of the new art. 27 which states that “no one can serve more than two consecutive terms.”

In total, 20 articles of the 2001 constitution were replaced or had sub-articles added.  Overall, the changes affecting presidential powers are fairly minor.

Amendments in addition to shortening the presidential term include:

  • Allowing independent candidates to run in elections at national and local levels (new art. 4).
  • Setting an upper age limit for presidential candidates at 75 years (new art. 28).
  • Institutionalizing the position of Leader of the Opposition with specific rights and responsibilities to be determined by law (new art. 58). This is a position that exists in a number of Francophone African countries, including Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Guinea.
  • Giving the Senegalese diaspora the right to elect their representatives in the National Assembly (new art. 59).
  • Increasing the membership of the Constitutional Council from 5 to 7 judges, of which 2 now have to be proposed by the National Assembly (new art. 89); and requiring the validation by the Constitutional Council of organic laws (new art. 78).
  • Instituting the practice of regular questioning of the Prime Minister and cabinet by the National Assembly (new art. 85), and the right of parliamentary committees to hold hearings with leaders of public entities and parastatal companies (new art. 81).
  • Locking in the duration and number of presidential mandates, as well as the mode of election of the president which cannot be changed through constitutional revisions (new art. 103).
  • Providing for transparency in the management of natural resources that must be exploited in a sustainable manner and for the benefit of the people (new art. 25-1); and requiring the government to protect the environment (new art.25-2).

President Sall chose a more modest revision than the complete overhaul of the constitution proposed by the National Commission for Institutional Reform (CNRI) in 2014. Among the innovations proposed by the CNRI which Sall did not include among his amendments were the following [see previous post here for further details]:

  • Requiring that the president step down as chair of his/her party.
  • Prohibiting a direct family member of an incumbent president to succeed him/her.
  • Requiring that the president appoint a prime minister from a list of three candidates submitted by the parliamentary majority, if the presidential and parliamentary majorities differ [that is, in case of cohabitation], in which case executive power would largely shift to the prime minister.
  • Reducing the legislative majority required to override a presidential veto from three fifths of the members of parliament to a simple majority.
  • Limiting the president’s power to dissolve parliament.
  • Capping the size of the cabinet at 25 ministers.

Though the newly passed amendments do provide for greater oversight by the National Assembly and Constitutional Council, they do not check presidential powers nearly to the extent envisioned by the CNRI. The CNRI had its origins in the Assises nationales, a one-year long consultative process conducted by parties and civil society organizations in opposition to then President Abdoulaye Wade. When Sall ran and won against Wade in 2012, he was backed by a large opposition coalition with roots in the Assises.

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