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Senegal kicks off short election campaign after poll delays

FILE PHOTO: Senegalese Constitutional Council finds election delay was unlawful, in Dakar

DAKAR (Reuters) - Senegalese presidential candidates launched their shortened campaigns on Saturday, two days after a court confirmed the election would be held on March 24, ending weeks of uncertainty and kick-starting a competition that remains wide open.

Tensions have gripped the country since early February, when a bid by President Macky Sall to postpone by 10 months a vote that had been due to take place on Feb. 25 provoked widespread protests and warnings by critics of democratic backsliding. Senegal, a country of 18 million, is normally one of West Africa's most stable democracies.

The worst of the crisis appears to be over after the Constitutional Council ruled that the vote must be held before Sall's mandate expires on April 2.

The new date leaves the 19 candidates little more than two weeks, rather than the usual 21 days, to drum up support. It also means that for the first time campaigning in the majority Muslim nation will take place during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins on Sunday night.

"We will have to adapt everything," opposition candidate and former mayor of the capital Dakar, Khalifa Sall, told Reuters.

"We were used to big gatherings, big events — it was festive — but this festive character does not fit with Ramadan, which is a time of penitence, a moment of communion."

The campaign period also coincides with the Christian period of Lent.

Sall, 62, who has reached the constitutional limit of two terms in power, said when he delayed the poll that he was doing so because of a dispute over candidates and alleged corruption within the Constitutional Council that approved the list. The council has denied the accusations.

"We will have to demonstrate flexibility and ingenuity," said Khalifa Sall, who is not related to the president.

"But the important thing is we have a date and we will vote."

The charismatic former mayor, who was prevented by a jail sentence from contesting the 2019 presidential election and later pardoned, launched his campaign as the clock struck midnight on Friday.

He pledged to re-unite the divided country and reform state institutions to avoid future constitutional crises, calling the recent dispute over the election date a "grave and sad thing" for a country has held elections for 64 years.

He also promised to revive the economy by boosting agriculture, fishing and the budding oil and gas industry.

The ruling Benno Bokk Yakaar (BBY) coalition's candidate, Amadou Ba, was due to kick off his campaign later on Saturday, as was opposition candidate Anta Babacar.

(Reporting by Portia Crowe; Editing by Frances Kerry)