Senegal’s Resilient Democracy

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!”