Lessons from Senegal’s Democracy

senegal_03192012Elections in Senegal have a long history, going back to 1848 when the citizens of Saint-Louis and Gorée were granted universal (male) suffrage. Although limited in scope, this electoral political culture is an important legacy, and this may explain why the breakdown of the electoral process, which many observers predicted, did not happen.

The unconstitutional candidacy of current President Abdoulaye Wade was the key contentious issue, resulting in many days of protest and police repression which cost the lives of around fifteen people. Despite this tension, election day was extremely peaceful and 65% of voters confidently voted against Wade.

The contrast between pre-electoral violence and peaceful voting clearly showed that elections do matter in Senegal and can make a difference. Many citizens–although sympathetic to the cause of demonstrators–preferred to “get rid of Wade through the ballot box” rather than through demonstrations triggering excessive police repression. In this respect, the Senegalese case with its decades of freedom of speech cannot be compared with the “Arab spring” case, because in the case of Senegal, massive vote rigging is difficult to carry out due to the vigilance of civil society and the thriving independant media.

With only 35% of the vote, Wade had to accept a runoff against his main challenger Macky Sall (26%), who is now supported by a large coalition including all the other candidates. As a result, Wade’s prospects for a victory are slim. Wade is betting that old style political resources, i.e. money and instrumentalization of marabouts (religious leaders), still pay off. Yet his last effort attempts at harnessing the influence of small ‘marabouts’ on their followers seem unlikely to get him enough votes.

If he is finally defeated, which is likely, the 2012 elections will be a confirmation that the classical paradigm of Senegalese politics, i.e. the centrality of the ‘islamo-wolof’ model of brotherhood and state collaboration, turned by Wade into a more exclusively “wolofo-murid” model, has reached his point of exhaustion. Macky Sall’s victory, backed by a coalition of both middle-class citizens looking for a more secular and modern state and a popular vote from the peripherical and plural countryside (‘terroirs’) of Senegal, would indeed deal the final blow. As such it would be an unique opportunity to reform state institutions and deepen Senegal’s democratic culture and pluralism.

Whatever the results, these last months already constitute a watershed in Senegal’s political history. Since June 23, 2011, a stronger civic ‘consciousness’ has emerged, which any new president will have to take into account. Direct public engagement by many segments of society has already reformatted the public space for good. The fight against the regression of Senegal’s institutions under Wade has had a positive effect, not just in striving to restore them, but also in raising democratic demands to new levels. There is indeed reason to hope that Senegal is in for a new era of accountability and quality of democratic life if Wade’s hold on power is finally defeated.


13Etienne Smith is postdoctoral research scholar at the Committee on Global Thought and teaches “The politics of identity in Africa” at MESAAS. He earned his Ph.D at Sciences Po Paris where he was studying the joking interstices of ethnicities and vernacular political resources in Senegal. His current research interests focus more broadly on cultures of statecraft and styles of leadership in Africa.