On Sunday, Senegal held the first round of its presidential elections, with President Abdoulaye Wade attempting to defend his seat against an array of challengers. Partial results indicate that Wade has failed to achieve the majority necessary to avoid a run-off, which is scheduled for March 18. An official pronouncement has yet to come from election authorities, but Wade’s team has admitted the need to hold a second round. He will face Macky Sall, who is Wade’s former protege, a former prime minister, and the current mayor of Fatick (map).
I wrongly predicted that Wade would win in the first round. To be less cagey than I was in that post, I had thought that Wade would rig the results substantially if he saw the need. Wade well knows the dangers of a second round, where the opposition can unite against the challenger to oust the incumbent – that’s how Wade came to power in 2000, ending forty years of socialist rule. It is still possible that Wade will win the second round (perhaps he even has an edge), but his danger has definitely increased.
The fact that Wade did not win the first round could suggest one or all of a few things. First, the numbers coming in on Sunday and Monday may have really convinced his team that no subtle “padding” of the results would get him over the 50% mark. In other words, if you score 45%, tampering with the count to give yourself an extra 5% is more doable than if you score 32% and need that extra 18%. Second, pressure from outside actors, especially the US and the European Union, may have been a stronger factor in discouraging rigging than I originally thought. Or third, perhaps I am depicting Wade unfairly, and the results are basically genuine – another potential factor in that would be the way that results are announced in detail, district by district, which arguably reduces the potential for fraud because people can listen to the radio and keep tallies at home.
My preliminary thought on Sall is that I makes sense that of the opposition candidates, the most votes went to the “newest,” or at least to someone who has not run for president before. I am not sure that any of the major candidates truly represents the youth who have been protesting in Senegal since last spring, but Sall may seem like the closest thing to a change candidate now.
Another few weeks of campaigning – and protests, I imagine – to come.
[UPDATE]: Dr. Leonardo Villalon, an expert in Senegalese politics, offers his thoughts in the comments section:
On the question of the lack of rigging the results: I think the most important factor is that the Senegalese electoral system itself is in fact very good. It is almost impossible to rig results on election day, or in the counting, in virtually all of the country. Given party and other observers at each polling place, and the public and transparent counting, with results being reported by phone and radio immediately across the country, very few irregularities are possible. Somewhat more possible is to rig things in advance, in terms of manipulating the voter lists or provision of voting cards. Yet despite some complaints, there are many indications that the lists were actually very solid this year, following audits done with the support of the international community. There were a few reports in the days leading to the election that Wade’s people were buying the voting cards of potential opposition voters, thus preventing them from voting. This is possible of course, but likely to be relatively minor. And those who would sell their cards are perhaps those least likely to vote anyway…. I suspect that Wade really thought he would win in the first round (incumbent politicians are not often good at judging their own popularity, or lack thereof). The official results are likely to be a very good indication of how people actually voted; indeed about as good as anywhere in the world.
On Macky Sall coming in second place: It’s true he hadn’t run for president before, but he’s not that “new” either–as a former PM and a significant PDS figure for a long time. Clearly his success is due primarily to the fact that basically he alone of the opposition candidates built and ran a real campaign, while the others spent much of their time focused on contesting Wade’s candidacy. Macky of course has a real base of support from his PDS days to build on, and he made the best of that in running a good campaign.
Things could certainly still go wrong in many ways, but there is much more reason for optimism about Senegal’s political future this week than there was last week.