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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.