Senegal: Don’t Count Wade Out

On Tuesday, a spokesman for Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade announced that he will seek a third term when the country goes to the polls in February. As I noted last week, Wade faces a number of problems, not least of which is a strong protest movement that opposes his candidacy and his re-election. Wade must also clear a legal hurdle, namely a ruling by the constitutional court on whether he is eligible to run (the 2001 constitution limits presidents to two terms, but Wade argues that he is eligible because he was first elected in 2000, before the current provision came into effect). Candidacy must be submitted to the court no later than 30 days before the election.

Following major protests in June and the withdrawal of Wade’s proposed changes to the electoral system – changes that would have made it much easier for him to win – the president looked weakened. But it would be a mistake to count him out. Incumbency carries significant advantages, and the president has been able to turn out large numbers of supporters for pro-regime marches. Some of the networks – religious, political, and patronage-based – that carried him to power in 2000 and 2007 remain active.

One question in assessing Wade’s chances of re-election is how far the regime will go in applying pressure to dissidents. Some observers are already concerned by the regime’s decision not to allow Senegalese NGO Rencontre Africain pour la defense des droits de l’homme (Raddho, or The African Encounter for the Defence of Human Rights) to monitor the elections. Raddho has joined opposition to Wade’s third term, and so the regime argues that the group is too politicized to be a neutral observer. Whether one agrees with the regime’s decision or not, it seems like a warning to the opposition that the regime will not only campaign vigorously, but will also keep a tight grip on the electoral process itself. The regime may also continue trying to prevent any street demonstrations, as well as other activities that it sees as interfering with a peaceful election. Still, such measures carry risks for the regime; while stifling protest may strengthen Wade’s position, it could also produce an even stronger backlash than the country has seen already. The opposition, meanwhile, will be challenged by the need to unite behind a credible candidate, and to turn the energy of youth in urban streets into a coherent movement for electoral triumph.

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