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Senegal’s Resilient Democracy

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DAKAR – Many commentators doubted whether democracy in Senegal, a country whose population is 95% Muslim, would survive its most recent presidential election, in which the incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade, sought a controversial (and only semi-legal) third term. But Senegal’s long-established democracy not only survived; it emerged strengthened. Why?

First of all, Senegalese citizens, unlike Wade, were determined to stick to peaceful tactics. Though some candidates and civil-society groups opted for a show of force with the regime, the majority of the population decided to defeat Wade at the ballot box – a patience and respect for electoral tradition that must be understood historically.

Under French colonial rule, elections were held in two, and then four, Communes of Senegal. From 1848 until independence in 1960, whenever France was a republic, Senegal elected a deputy who became a full member of the French parliament, giving rise to a lively political society and free press. Despite endemic clientelism, Senegal has preserved its core electoral practices in the decades since independence. One-party rule (1966-1974) did not last long relative to other newly independent African states.

Senegal’s democratic tradition deeply shapes ordinary people’s expectations. In June 2011, Wade attempted to amend the constitution to eliminate a second round of voting in presidential elections should the leading candidate win 25% in the first round, rather than 50%. This effort at a constitutional coup was thwarted by massive protests in front of parliament. Slogans like “Touche pas à ma Constitution” (Don’t touch my Constitution) were accompanied by “Wade, dégage!” (Wade, get out!), reminiscent of the chants in Tunisia, “Ben Ali, dégage!”

Democratic resistance worked, blocking the amendment and creating the possibility of defeating Wade’s run for a third term. In the first round on February 26, voters showed a higher level of trust in their electoral institutions than did many political actors, who urged postponement of the election, or a boycott, on the grounds that Wade’s control of the state apparatus made a free and fair election impossible.

In fact, a well-organized civil society and an independent press ensured that the results could not be rigged. For example, as soon as results were counted locally, they were immediately announced nationally by independent television and radio broadcasters, even when state TV stopped disclosing results. International pressure, especially from the United States, France, and the European Union, also helped to marginalize the hard-liners in Wade’s entourage.

In the crucial first round, only 35% of the electorate voted for Wade. Opposition candidates like Macky Sall, who bet on high voter turnout, fared much better than candidates who took the fight to the streets or, hoping the election would be postponed, started campaigning too late. With 26% of the first-round vote, Macky Sall was on the ballot for the runoff.

Voters, especially in Senegal’s cities, eschewed vote-buying and instructions by some religious leaders to vote for Wade, whose aggressive strategy of clientilism and ethnic divisiveness failed conspicuously. By violating the symmetry of respect and equidistance between ethnic groups that characterizes Senegal’s pluralism, he offended far more people than he attracted.

In the second round, all 12 unsuccessful candidates supported Sall, as they had pledged to do. With the opposition strongly united, Sall more than doubled his first-round vote, reaching 66%, while popular support for Wade stagnated. The army adhered to its tradition of non-intervention and explicitly let the president know that the result had to be respected.

Wade’s defeat is an important opportunity for Senegal to restructure its political landscape. Indeed, a template exists for what is needed.

Early in Wade’s second term, criticism of his increasing “super-presidentialism” and efforts to promote his son as his successor led opposition and civil-society groups in 2008-2009 to organize a series of reflections on political reform, known as the Assises Nationales. Its conclusions, known as the “Charter for Democratic Governance,” were signed by all of the opposition candidates.

The Charter calls for increasing the parliament’s power, a genuinely independent judiciary, and a strictly controlled executive. There is now hope that Sall and the coalition backing him (which should get a majority in the new parliament after elections in early July) will implement these recommendations.

Senegal’s citizens have provided a valuable lesson to those who are skeptical about democracy’s prospects in Africa or the Muslim world. Indeed, Senegal’s recent democratic success compels us to compare its experience more closely with other Muslim-majority countries – for example, Indonesia, Turkey, and perhaps Arab-majority Tunisia – that have been similarly successful.

Alfred Stepan is Professor of Government and Director of the Center for Democracy, Toleration, and Religion at Columbia University. 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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