(Bloomberg) -- Senegal is teetering on the brink of crisis after lawmakers voted to delay elections and extend the final term of President Macky Sall by nearly a year — a move opponents have characterized as a “constitutional coup.”

In a region that has seen seven military takeovers and at least four attempts by security forces to oust civilian leaders in the past three years, the events of this week have cast a pall over Senegal’s reputation as among the most stable democracies in West Africa. 

Sall’s government has in recent days detained two presidential candidates, arrested three opposition lawmakers, and cut off mobile internet access across the country. 

“We always call for the military to stay in their barracks and not threaten our democracies. In Senegal, we now have a president who cancels an election only hours before the launch of the electoral campaign, putting the country on a dangerous path,” opposition leader Yassine Fall said in a phone interview from Dakar. 

Presidential elections were postponed from Feb. 25 to Dec. 15 during a parliamentary session on Monday in which opposition lawmakers were ejected from the chambers after they tried to block proceedings. 

The vote means that Sall, whose second and final term was set to end on April 2, will remain in office until a successor takes power.

The Senegalese leader cited a dispute at the Constitutional Council, the judicial body that decides whether candidates are eligible to run for the presidency, as the reason for delaying the election. That arose after the council disqualified an opposition candidate from running for office, which he responded to with accusations of corruption. Other candidates also challenged the decision. Sall, in turn, has said a parliamentary inquiry must be conducted into the matter before elections can be held.

Abdou Mbow, president of the ruling Beno Bokk Yakaar coalition’s parliamentary group, described the decision as necessary to avoiding an institutional crisis. 

“The president didn’t postpone the elections, the parliament did,” Mbow told reporters in Dakar on Tuesday, calling it “the right move.”  

The US and the Economic Community of West African States have urged Senegal to reverse the 10-month delay, while France and the African Union have called for swift elections.

The developments have also spooked investors. Senegal’s eurobonds fell by 4.8% on Monday, making them the worst-performing among all emerging and frontier nation bonds monitored by Bloomberg. Dollar bonds maturing in May 2033 also hit their lowest price since November, and are still down 3.3% this week.

In an emailed note to investors on Wednesday, S&P Global Ratings noted that Sall’s decision to postpone the election could “open up political uncertainty, which could weigh on capital inflows and investor confidence.” 

“Although we don’t foresee a scenario where the current president clings to power indefinitely, these developments will likely erode confidence in Senegal’s relative institutional strength and tarnish its reputation as one of Africa’s most stable democracies,” it said.

While Senegal has never experienced a civil war or coup and has overseen largely peaceful transitions of power since gaining its independence from France in 1960, the country has been wracked by sporadic and increasingly violent protests since 2021, when opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was arrested on charges of rape. His party was dissolved by the government last year after Sonko was accused of fomenting an insurrection, and in a recent report, Human Rights Watch said that authorities have targeted his supporters. 

The current climate in Senegal stands in stark contrast to that of 2012, when Sall ascended to power on a wave of discontent against then-President Abdoulaye Wade, who was running for an unconstitutional third term. Sall also publicly toyed with running for a third term last year before backing down and throwing his support behind a chosen successor. Wade’s son, Karim Wade, is the disqualified presidential candidate who accused the council of corruption.

The tumult comes amid a wider uptick in military power grabs across West Africa. Mali, Guinea, Niger and Burkina Faso are all under military rule and attempts to restore democracy were dealt a blow last month when the leaders of these juntas announced plans to leave the Economic Community of West African States, the region’s most important economic and political bloc. 

According to Niagale Bagayoko, chair of the Accra-based African Security Sector Network think tank, Ecowas has been unable to stabilize the region “partly because it’s more and more made up of authoritarian civilian regimes that themselves don’t adhere to the democratic ideals the bloc pledges to uphold.”

Sall had been a holdout, helping lead regional efforts to push authoritarian regimes back to democracy. After a military junta took power in Niger last July, he threatened the use of force to convince its leaders to relinquish power. 

The president will likely have to give up this role now, said Sokhna Ba, a member of the Yewwi Askan Wi opposition coalition and the parliament’s youngest lawmaker.

“Senegal used to be the example of a good democracy. We could go fix problems abroad. Now, we’ve lost all credibility,” she said. 

The constitutional crisis could also endanger Senegal’s oil and gas aspirations just as the country is on the cusp of becoming a significant producer. After securing a $1.8 billion loan from the IMF last year, forecasts now show Senegal growing 8.8% in 2024 with projects involving BP Plc, Kosmos Energy Ltd. and Woodside Energy Group Ltd. set to go online this year. Senegal is looking for partners to develop the Yakaar-Teranga offshore oil field after BP exited the project last year. 

“Oil has created a new dynamic,” Ndongo Samba Sylla, head of research and policy for the Africa region at International Development Economics Associates, said by phone. 

“Before, we had fish and peanuts,” he said. “Now, with oil and gas production set to start and the revenue its expected to bring, staying in power has become more important.”

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