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Africa’s Imperiled Democracy

NEW YORK – The future of one of Africa’s oldest democracies is at stake in Senegal’s presidential election on February 26. The incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade, formerly a leading advocate for democracy, has, at almost 90 years old, become its gravedigger.

Wade has been tinkering with Senegal’s constitution in dangerous ways ever since he was inaugurated in 2000. Of the 15 changes Wade made to the constitution, ten weakened democracy; the others were erratic, if not bizarre. For example, Wade at one point abolished Senegal’s senate, only to reinstate it after realizing that it could be put to use as a place to reward political allies. Likewise, he reduced the length of presidential terms from seven years to five, but later restored it to seven.

In February 2007, Wade was re-elected as Senegal’s president amid opposition charges that the election had not been free and fair. As a result, the opposition boycotted the June, 2007, parliamentary elections. That was a mistake, because the boycott gave Wade absolute control over the legislature, as well as the ability to appoint Constitutional Court judges unimpeded.

Last June, Wade attempted what would have amounted to a constitutional coup. The most recent credible opinion poll in Senegal, conducted the previous year, had indicated that Wade would receive only 27% of the vote in the next presidential election. Given the existing constitution’s provision for a mandatory run-off if no candidate wins 50%, Wade would almost certainly lose if the opposition parties united behind a single candidate.

Wade, recognizing this, tried to have the National Assembly amend the Constitution in his favor once again. Any candidate who won a plurality and at least 25% of the popular vote in the first round would win the presidency. No run-off would be necessary.

Thanks to massive demonstrations, in which many popular artists played a role, Wade backed off. It is now impossible for him to abolish a presidential runoff. But Wade is trying other tricks. His followers have circulated fake polls suggesting that he would win in the first round with 53% – clear evidence that Wade’s clan does not seriously envisage any scenario other than a first-round victory.

In late January, Wade’s stacked Constitutional Court ruled that he could run for a third term, even though the Constitution allows only two terms. The ruling also excluded the world-famous singer and composer Youssou N’Dour from running against him.

As predicted, widespread protests erupted, and five people were killed in clashes with the police. Opposition parties and civil-society groups denounced this constitutional coup and adopted the motto “Wade dégage!” (Wade out!) – reminiscent of “Ben Ali, dégage!” in Tunisia last year. Some Sufi religious leaders have also asked Wade to step down.

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During the following week, the opposition considered massive protests to prevent the election. Such protests, however, would have resulted in further violence, and democracy might have broken down entirely.

Indeed, if Senegal were like Latin America in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the military probably would have taken over already in the guise of savior of public order. Fortunately, Senegal, like India, is one of the few countries born after World War II never to have had a military takeover.

The opposition’s most effective – and democratic – strategy would have been to unite behind a single candidate to run against Wade six months ago, when campaigning began, just as Chile’s two major opposition parties successfully united to defeat General Augusto Pinochet in the plebiscite of 1988. Technically, this remains an option, but it has become an unlikely scenario, given the time and will required.

But Senegalese democracy can still be saved. If the opposition parties keep their promise to unite behind whichever opposition candidate receives the most votes in the first round, Wade will most likely lose in the run-off.

Moreover, the opposition’s chances of benefiting from a free and fair election will be enhanced, owing to greater external scrutiny of the election than there was in 2007, when no international electoral observers were present. Indeed, a strong team of election monitors from the European Union is already on the ground. But massive international media attention, as well as Senegalese citizens’ vigilance, will be necessary to avoid sophisticated vote-rigging and violence.

France and the United States are the two most influential foreign players in Senegal. After the Constitutional Court’s decision to allow Wade to run for a third term, the US State Department said that “the statesman-like thing to do would be to cede to the next generation.” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé issued a similar statement a few days later, which came as something of a surprise, given France’s notorious reluctance to break relations with African incumbents, including autocrats.

If the opposition defeats Wade, Senegal’s most vital democratic institutions could be rapidly reinvigorated. The opposition would participate in, and almost certainly win, the June 2012 general election, and all of the opposition candidates have agreed that, whichever one of them wins the presidential election, the country’s super-presidential constitution should be overhauled.

Eventually, with a strengthened legislature and a more constrained presidency, the Constitutional Court, too, would begin to change. In that case, Senegal’s slide towards authoritarianism would be reversed, and its legacy of democracy redeemed.

Alfred Stepan, a professor of political science at Columbia University, is a specialist on comparative democratization. His latest book is Crafting State Nations: India and Other Multinational Societies. Etienne Smith, a fellow at Columbia University, has carried out nearly a decade of field research in Senegal.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

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