People arrive at a polling station in Fatick, Senegal, on March 20. (Seyllou Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 20, 38 percent of Senegalese voters participated in a constitutional referendum that President Macky Sall chose to initiate halfway through his first presidential term. Of those who voted, 63 percent approved proposed amendments to Senegal’s constitution that were promoted by the president and his ruling coalition as 15 major propositions “to modernize the political regime, reinforce good governance and consolidate rule of law.”

The propositions included reducing the presidential term from seven to five years, lowering barriers to independent candidacy in all types of elections, designating the leader of the largest parliamentary party as “head of opposition” and increasing the number of Constitutional Council members while diversifying their mode of appointment.

These amendments might further democratic consolidation in Senegal, which has long enjoyed a reputation as a beacon of democracy in the region. But the politics of the referendum have been more complex than a mere “up or down” vote on strengthening certain aspects of Senegalese democracy.

The broader political context surrounding the referendum

Senegal is no stranger to multiparty elections or constitutional referenda. Most recently, Sall became president in 2012, after defeating Abdoulaye Wade, who was pursuing a constitutionally controversial third term. After being denied approval from the National Assembly to run for a third term, Wade successfully appealed to the presidentially appointed Constitutional Council to permit his candidacy.

Wade’s third term campaign sparked a popular urban opposition movement led by hip hop artists known as the June 23 Movement and Y’en A Marre. The activism of these groups and of other presidential candidates and empowered citizens acting on their own amplified the debate on limiting presidential power.

Citizens’ critical thinking about the scope and the limits of presidential power carried over into the March referendum vote. The most controversial reform proposed in the referendum was to reduce the presidential term from seven years to five. During Sall’s 2012 presidential campaign, he vowed not just to respect presidential term limits but that he would seek a reduction in the length of terms, to take immediate effect on his first term in office.

Demand for reform is not new. In 2009, the National Dialogue endorsed a term reduction and included it in a charter for institutional reforms that Sall signed during the 2012 presidential campaign. The National Commission on Institutional Reform (CNRI) included the term time reduction and the two-term limit in its 2014 proposals.

Sall has been criticized for taking so long to follow through on his campaign promise to reduce the length of presidential terms. It was not until February 2016 that he submitted the proposed text of the referendum to the Constitutional Council, which rejected Sall’s plan to reduce his current mandate to five years. This effectively set 2019 as the date of the next presidential election and inspired accusations that Sall was not keeping his word.

What was at stake in the referendum?

The referendum wasn’t a mere up or down vote on changes to Senegal’s political system that would consolidate democracy. Opposition leaders in the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) marketed the referendum as a plebescite on Sall’s presidency and encouraged voting “no.”

The referendum also created divisions between parties that are currently part of Sall’s parliamentary coalition but are expected to leave that coalition before the next presidential election, when they’ll run their own candidates for Senegal’s highest office. The most notable example has been the Socialist Party, whose president supported the “yes” vote, while two other Socialist Party elites with presidential ambitions campaigned for “no.”

Muslim leaders also weighed in. With a 94 percent Muslim population, Senegal is a secular state in which political success can hinge on the tacit approval of Sufi Islamic brotherhoods. Sall visited Touba, headquarters of the Mouride brotherhood, during his campaign for “yes.” The Khalifa General gladly received him but offered no judgment about the referendum, leaving the issue open for debate among his followers. Touba turned out to be one of the only areas in which the “no” vote prevailed.

Several religious leaders who gained legitimacy under Sall after their parties and movements won multiple seats in the 2012 National Assembly election also supported “no” votes. Imam Mbaye Niang supported “no” and resigned from the Bureau of the National Assembly when Sall called the referendum. Serigne Mansour Sy Djamil initially favored “yes” but switched when a reduction of Sall’s current term was taken off of the table.

These examples illustrate how political conditions can empower Islamic leaders to advance democratic debate through direct involvement in party politics, which is similar to what Samba Diallo and I have argued elsewhere about religious figures during the Wade presidency.

What does the referendum say about democracy in Senegal?

Vibrant debates about the referendum and citizens’ widespread acceptance of its outcome are healthy features of democracy in Senegal. However, over the past decade, Senegal has also exhibited an “uneven playing field” typical of competitive authoritarian (as opposed to democratic) regimes. The reforms brought about by this referendum could fragment and weaken the opposition, which would make future elections even less competitive.

First, the amendments encourage even more party splintering, since the new constitution reduces barriers to independent candidacy. My research shows that Senegal’s party system is already host to over 250 registered political parties, many of which are “telephone booth parties” that do not regularly run candidates in elections. These parties often splintered from parliamentary opposition parties, which are most vulnerable to splits under two conditions: when the barriers to party formation are low and when the rewards for new party formation are high.

Senegal under Wade met both of these conditions: The requirements for party formation were minimal, and he invited party leaders who joined the ruling coalition into a formal club that regularly received access to the spoils of office. Senegal during the second half of Sall’s first term risks developing a similar incentive structure, but with individual candidacies rather than new political parties functioning as the currency that politicians who desert major opposition parties can use to collect rewards for striking out on their own.

Second, the new amendments aimed at reforming the Constitutional Council do not resolve balance of power issues between the presidency and the judiciary. The reforms increase the number of Constitutional Council members from five to seven and shift some power away from the president, who used to appoint all members of the Constitutional Council. Under the reforms, the president will choose two of the seven judges from a list of four nominees proposed by the president of the National Assembly. While this is a step towards greater judicial independence, the reform does little to restrain the president and will likely not suffice in preventing presidential overreach, like Wade’s third-term bid.

We will gain a better understanding of the impact of these reforms for Senegal’s democracy as the 2017 National Assembly elections and the 2019 presidential elections approach.

Although there are several ways that the reforms might not create stronger checks and balances, one bright point is that Sall and his advisers inserted an “intangibility” clause into the new constitution, forbidding further rule changes about presidential term limits. Senegalese legal scholars will undoubtedly debate the practical implications of this clause, just as they have for clauses of previous constitutions. But even if the intangibility clause does not settle all questions about term time and term limits, the very existence of heated debate about presidential power – and the regime’s willingness to tolerate it – is an encouraging sign.

Catherine Lena Kelly (@catherinelkelly) is an American Council of Learned Societies Public Fellow based in Washington. The views presented here are hers and not those of the institutions with which she is affiliated.