Senegal: Warnings From a Model Democracy on the Brink

Senegal, one of Africa’s most celebrated democracies, hovers on the brink of electoral chaos and political violence.  At least six people have already been killed, and protests and demonstrations are continuing on a daily basis despite the violent crack-down of the riot police. The most pessimistic observers fear that Senegal might follow in the blood-soaked footsteps of its neighbour Côte d’Ivoire. The more optimistic put their faith in the strength of Senegalese democratic traditions. While the first scenario is unlikely, as Senegal’s social and political make-up differs markedly from Côte d’Ivoire’s, it is clear that Sunday’s elections pose the gravest test yet to Senegal’s democracy.

It is easy to lay the blame for Senegal’s democratic decline at the feet of President Abdoulaye Wade – and to be sure, after over a decade in power the 85 year-old has much to answer for. But at the same time, Senegal’s current predicament holds important lessons for international democracy promotion in Africa. It serves as a powerful reminder that although elections are essential they are a blunt tool for the creation of democracy, and regular elections can also facilitate electoral autocracy.

Since the so-called ‘third wave’ of democratization, multi-party elections have become the key marker of transitions to democracy and democratic progress. To international actors and donors, elections provide a watershed event: they take place on a specific date, they can be observed and monitored, a report can be issued on their conduct and misconduct, and a line can be drawn between the present and an autocratic and perhaps violent past—hence the haste with which elections have been organized in many post-conflict countries. But as the Senegalese experience shows, there is much more to democracy than regular elections.

When Abdoulaye Wade won the 2000 elections, the country had already had a limited form of competitive politics since 1980. Wade’s victory was nevertheless important, as he ousted a president who had been in office for 22 years and a party that had ruled uninterrupted for 40 years. The 2000 elections enhanced Senegal’s reputation as an African success story, the only country in West Africa never to experience a military coup, and, alongside Botswana, one of the few countries to democratize before the ‘third wave’ began in 1989.

In Senegal, as in most of sub-Saharan Africa, elections have now become routinized, and virtually all presidents and governments are compelled to go through with some kind of elections—however flawed—in order to maintain a modicum of international legitimacy. But like Senegal, many countries have ended up as electoral autocracies, where dominant parties are routinely returned to power. Merely holding elections do not necessarily strengthen democracy, especially if electoral processes are weak and subject to manipulations by the executive when the government is able to favour one candidate or party through control of the media, the courts, the electoral commission   and the security forces, to mention but a few of the possible tactics. In most such cases, however, the international community will issue a report detailing electoral irregularities and expressing concerns about freedom and human rights; but in the interest of political stability, financial support will continue. After all, elections did take place.

This has been exactly Senegal’s political trajectory. After the 2000 elections, Wade continued on a path of presidential clientelism, weakening the National Assembly and centralizing ever more power in his own office (and that of his son Karim, referred to in the local media as “the Minister of sun, sky and everything in-between”). He kept his electoral promise to revise the constitution so as to reduce the presidential term from 7 to 5 years, and also to limit the number of presidential terms to two instead of three.  Neither constitutional provision has been applied to himself, however:  Wade’s first term lasted until 2007, when he was re-elected with 55% of the vote. The current political crisis emerges from the High Court’s acceptance of Wade’s bid for a third term as President, arguing with the President that the two-term limit should not apply to him since his first term started before the constitutional amendment.

These autocratic maneuverings, combined with the general lack of social and economic improvement for most people, explain the current anger on the streets of Dakar. President Wade has failed to deliver on his promises of a better life, and Senegal’s slow economic growth has not translated into improved welfare and employment opportunities. Young people are increasingly forced to seek a living in the precarious informal sector; hence the youth movement ‘Y’en a marre’ (Enough is Enough), an expression of young people’s frustration with their dwindling life chances, lack of jobs and rising food and fuel prices. As they take to the streets again, they are likely to be met with the riot police’s tear gas and batons. Whether this signals the end of the Senegalese success story remains to be seen. Whatever happens in the forthcoming elections, Senegal serves as a reminder that democracy cannot be reduced to the formal procedures of elections alone, and that elections can be the vehicle for electoral  autocracy as much as the advancement of people’s political, social and economic rights.

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