DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Senegalese residents on Sunday voted on a constitutional referendum that could see sweeping constitutional reforms including a reduction of presidential powers and terms from seven to five years, on a continent where many leaders try to hold onto power.
More than 5 million people are expected to vote Sunday to determine if 15 reforms will be adopted, according to the election commission.
The proposed changes include measures to strengthen the National Assembly, improve representation for Senegalese abroad, provide greater rights for the opposition and boost participation of independent candidates in elections.
“We are a modern African democracy. Today in Africa, many countries impose mandates. Here we are giving referendums for which people can say yes or no,” said voter Mamadou Diagne, 58, a human resources representative at an oil company. “It’s very satisfying to be a Senegalese today.” Diagne said all of the reforms represent advancement.
President Macky Sall, who was voted into office in 2012, announced the proposed term limits in March 2015, saying he wanted to set an example for other African countries. During his campaign he said he would serve a reduced term. In February, however, the Constitutional Court rejected his proposal to shorten his present term, saying the referendum vote would determine future limits.
“This referendum is organized to not only establish the rule of law but also deepen our democracy,” Sall said after voting in Fatick, about 155 kilometers (96 miles) southeast of Dakar. Senegal’s seven-year term was set under the previous president, Abdoulaye Wade, who flouted a two-term limit to run against Sall.
Sall’s effort to reduce term limits is in marked contrast to moves by other African leaders who have pushed to eliminate term limits so they can extend their time in power.
Marie Antoinette Sene, 51, a businesswoman said she voted “yes” on Sunday.
“Independent candidates in each election is a good thing … it’s important that all Senegalese have representation,” she said. “In contrast, the reduction of the presidential mandate is the one point I don’t like.” Sene said she supports seven years for the first term, and five for the second.
Others said they voted “no” because they mistrust Sall, who they say dragged his feet on reducing his own term.
“Sall promised he would reduce his term, and he didn’t,” said Cheikh Thiam Dia, 43, a representative of the “no” vote at station. That mistrust extends into other points on the referendum that voters such as Dia worry are too vague.
Adama Thiam, a civil society consultant, said more discussion is needed to be sure everyone better understands the points in the referendum.
AP writer Babacar Dione in Dakar, Senegal, and reporter Mamadou Diop in Fatick, Senegal, contributed to this report.
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