Senegal’s Presidential Elections: 10 Days Out

Senegal will hold elections ten days from today, a contest that I and others expect incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade to win. Read about his campaign here, and his continued outreach to leaders of the Mouridiyya Sufi brotherhood here (in French, h/t Alex Zito).

Wade’s likely triumph in the face of a divided opposition (a win that some suspect will necessitate fraud) will not go over well with the country’s protest movements. In recent days protesters have met resistance from security forces, who blocked a planned sit-in Tuesday and dispersed protesters yesterday. The street protest movement, which dates to last spring, has been concentrated in the capital Dakar, though protests have occurred in other cities. Wade, on the campaign trail, has encountered foes in opposition strongholds like Thies, where his convoy was stoned last week. The strength of the urban-based protesters may be exaggerated in some media coverage, Senegal is more than Dakar, and Wade still enjoys strong support in some rural areas – but the passion of the urban protesters seems unlikely to fade once Wade wins.

Freedom House’s Brendan Harrison speculates on post-election scenarios:

Some citizens and outside observers are weighing the possibility of a popular uprising akin to last year’s Arab Spring revolts, with large numbers of Senegalese taking to the streets in defense of their political rights. Another, even more troubling scenario would entail a violent postelection standoff between the entrenched incumbent and forces loyal to his would-be successor, as occurred a year ago in Côte d’Ivoire.

I view the Cote d’Ivoire scenario as unlikely, given the difficulty the opposition has had uniting around one candidate (meaning there is no Senegalese Alassane Ouattara at present) and the fact that Senegal has no civil war in its past (or if one counts the Casamance conflict as a civil war, still the main political faultlines in this election do not concern the Casamance). Senegal’s history has not been free of conflict, but Senegal does not have the memories of violence and war that were activated during the post-election struggle in Cote d’Ivoire.

An “Arab spring” scenario of mass protests is more likely, but I see more value in looking to Senegal’s past for comparisons rather than to Egypt or Tunisia. In particular, I see parallels to 1988 (when Wade was in the opposition). That year, the triumph of the ruling Parti Socialiste (PS) was preceded by protests and followed by riots. The resulting security crackdown included the arrests of major opposition politicians. The PS maintained control, but arguably the 1988 elections set Senegal on a path toward the democratic transition of 2000, by starting to raise the price, for the PS, of staying in power.

International actors are continuing to pressure Wade to step down, but he still seems unlikely to be swayed by the protests of Washington, Brussels, or Paris.

As a postscript, if you’re in DC or online this morning, you might check out the Brookings Institution’s panel on the Senegalese elections. Should be an interesting discussion.

3 thoughts on “Senegal’s Presidential Elections: 10 Days Out

  1. Well, talking about Ivory Coast, it might do to look back at that situation a little more carefully. Bedie won the election in 1995 (over a fractured opposition). By 1999, there was the Guei coup d’etat and then Gbagbo came to power in 2000. You see where I’m going with this. Unfortunately Mr Thurston, Senegal today looks very much like Cote d’Ivoire 20 years ago. Frighteningly so.

    Moreover, Casamance is a bigger issue than you think. Wade has made multiple trips to Banjul to chat with and seek support from Yahya Jammeh. He was at Jammeh’s inauguration. Earlier, he sought Jammeh’s help to end the conflict in Casamance. Jammeh said he’d take care of it by the end of Ramadan last year and was loudly rebuffed by Atiko, the militant wing of the MFDC. Every Senegambian with open eyes knows that Jammeh openly supports the rebellion. He has called Salifou Sadio his “big brother” and has given them their most sophisticated weapons yet (you should hear the cooler talk in Banjul about the Iranian weapons saga. An interesting aside/rumor is that Gbagbo and Jammeh were actually partners in shady arms deals but he couldn’t use Cote d’Ivoire — due to the elections etc. — as a transit point hence the debacle in Nigeria)
    Indeed, violence in Casamance has increased with the growing general political instability. There was a recent round a couple of days ago. It almost always takes place near near the Gambian border.

    It’s time to start paying serious attention to Senegal and the whole range of issues instead of just looking at it through the paradigm of elections.

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