March 20, 2016 / 4:07 PM / 2 years ago

Senegal votes in referendum seen as test of president's popularity

DAKAR (Reuters) - Senegal held a referendum on Sunday, seen as a test of President Macky Sall’s popularity, that could usher in major constitutional reform but which critics say falls short of his election promises.

Senegal's President Macky Sall attends the opening ceremony of the 26th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) at the AU headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 30, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Put forward by Sall, the vote proposes reducing presidential terms to five years from seven, starting after the next election in 2019, just as leaders of other African nations including Burkina Faso, Burundi, Rwanda and Congo seek to extend theirs.

It also aims to limit the age of presidential candidates to 75 and allow independents to run.

Sall says the reforms are vital to bolster Senegal’s already stable democracy but he has come under widespread criticism, including from influential politicians, for not proposing to cut his own first term, as he pledged before he was elected.

A “No” would be likely to leave him politically weakened.

Turnout was slow early on, with only 10 percent of votes cast by 11 a.m. (GMT), according to Doudou Ndir, the head of Senegal’s election watchdog.

Activity was likely to pick up in the afternoon, with more than five million people expected to vote nationwide. The result was not expected until later this week.

Political opponents have called on people to vote “No” in protest against Sall. Many say he has failed to deliver on his campaign promises, including creating jobs for the young, boosting the economy and rooting out corruption.

“The president of the republic missed a great opportunity to unite the people,” said former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck, one of Sall’s fiercest critics, after voting in Thies, about 70 km (44 miles) from Dakar.

“It is a great opportunity for every citizen to actively address a solemn warning by voting ‘No’ to the project,” he said.

Fadel Barro of the civil society group Y’En a Marre (We’re Fed Up), a powerful political force during the last election, is calling upon voters to reject the new constitution which he says was drafted without outside consultation.

“We mobilize for a real reform, a reform that the Senegalese people have waited for,” he said. “Macky Sall has proposed a referendum that is empty of substance.”

At the polls on Sunday, some had mixed feelings, even after voting.

Fatou Kamara, a 22-year-old primary school teacher said she voted “Yes” after emerging from a polling station in central Dakar, in part because she supported what Sall has done for the economy.

But she had hoped for more from the referendum.

“I regret that he could not (reduce the presidential term) for the current mandate, which was his wish.”

Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Louise Ireland

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