“The Weakness of the Opposition in Africa”: Senegal as a Case Study

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has been in power for over a decade, and many Senegalese want him to go. Domestic discontent with Wade has been growing for years. Wade, who came to the presidency in 2000 in a vote widely hailed as free, fair, and inspiring, has even found that “Senegal’s democratic credentials are being questioned.” Earlier this spring, Senegal saw serious protests led by disaffected veterans and other groups, such as youth.

Senegal’s opposition parties are hungry to take out Wade. Yet they are fragmented and weak: in 2007, by which time many Senegalese were already fed up with Wade, the president cruised to re-election with nearly 56% of the vote. His closest rivals, a former protege named Idrissa Seck and the head of the Socialist Party, Ousmane Tanor Dieng (the Parti Socialiste ruled Senegal until Wade’s 2000 victory), scored only 15% and 14% respectively. Since 2007, opposition parties have maneuvered for position in advance of the 2012 elections, but in the protests this year they have been followers, not leaders.

An anti-Wade rally this weekend once again underscored the opposition’s weakness:

The rally attracted more than 30 opposition groups, including several former members of Wade’s party and the socialist regime that preceded him. The goal of the meeting was to begin to field possible candidates who could unite the fragmented opposition and run a viable campaign against the president.

Among the half-dozen politicians present, it is still unclear who might fill this role. Though the 84-year-old president’s popularity has faded over his 10-year rule, he retains much support in the capital Dakar.

We hear all the time about the “weakness of the opposition” in Africa’s elections, and I would love to be able to challenge the stereotype. But in the majority of elections I’ve followed, incumbents have triumphed over fragmented oppositions. In the official results from this year’s presidential elections in Uganda, Chad, Benin, and Nigeria, opposition candidates failed to break the 40% threshold. In several cases, a host of opposition figures split tiny fractions of the vote between them – in none of these cases would their combined totals have produced an opposition win, but the fragmentation dilutes the opposition’s ability to voice demands on the national or international stages. The only presidential election in sub-Saharan Africa that produced an opposition triumph occurred in Niger, and that was a different set of circumstances, namely an open election following a military coup.

It is revealing that the Senegalese case fits the pattern of opposition weakness so well, because only a few years ago Senegal would have exemplified opposition triumph: Wade ran for president four times before his fifth, victorious run, and his win was made possible because the rest of the opposition rallied around him in the second of a two-round election.

Many factors help explain opposition weakness, and they don’t all apply to Senegal. In some countries, vote-rigging dilutes opposition totals, obscuring the genuinely high levels of support that exist. I heard allegations of rigging when I was in Senegal during the 2007 elections, but these were never proven. Other factors are certainly present, though:

  • the power of incumbency,
  • regional divisions
  • the ineffectiveness of opposition boycotts,
  • the tendency toward party schisms and the creation of parties based around one figure, and
  • the incumbent’s ability to divide and conquer the opposition –
  • and more.

I don’t see anything specifically “African” about these trends. Incumbents profit from the weakness of the opposition all the time as, for example, President Bush did in 2004 and as President Obama looks set to do in 2012. Nor can the weakness of all African opposition parties be ascribed in a straightforward way to “weak party institutions” – in the Senegalese case, after all, the Parti Socialiste has been around since 1960, and held power for four decades. This, again, is what makes the Senegalese case so fascinating: it fits the trend of opposition weakness, but it complicates the simple explanations.

One explanation that does hold, I think, is the idea of “weak institutions” in general. Specifically there is the lack of strong checks on rulers’ abilities to distribute patronage to supporters, and there is also the lack, or the fuzzinees, of term limits in many places (even though Senegal’s 2001 constitution prohibits presidents from holding three terms, Wade argues that he is grandfathered in, and thus eligible to run in 2012). There is much more to say on the question of institutions, of course, but I will leave that to the political scientists.

My final thought is that some responsibility accrues to opposition politicians themselves. I do not pretend to know the complexities of running for office in Senegal, Benin, Mauritania, or elsewhere, but it seems to me that certain features of the political landscapes in these countries – especially the revolving door through which many opposition leaders circulate from partnering with regimes to denouncing them, and back again – weakens opposition parties’ credibility and sows disunity. Some opposition leaders also overstay their welcome, and end up re-running tired campaigns instead of making way for new, and potentially more popular, faces.

Many voters in countries like Senegal have not given up on democracy. On the contrary, they are eager to engage in the process, eager to try to achieve change at the ballot box. That enthusiasm helps explain, I think, why we have not seen larger or more widespread protests south of the Sahara this spring. Stronger opposition parties would not necessarily overturn incumbent regimes across the continent, of course. But as matters stand in Senegal and elsewhere, aspirations for change, given that their main vehicle is a weak and fragmented opposition, end up going nowhere.


3 thoughts on ““The Weakness of the Opposition in Africa”: Senegal as a Case Study

  1. Pingback: Development Digest – 20/05/11 « What am I doing here?

  2. Pingback: Senegal: Eyes on Idrissa Seck | Sahel Blog

  3. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I agree totally with the content of this article. Far too often, African dictators have triumphed mainly because the opposition is terribly weak, fragmented, prone to petty squabbles, and extremely susceptible to bribery and corruption by the incumbent. This has happened repeatedly in the Republic of Cameroon under Mr. Paul Biya’s terribly corrupt regime which has set up a gigantic fraud machine to rig the upcoming presidential election billed for October 9th, 2011.
    Dr. Peter Wuteh Vakunta, USA

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