Senegal: Eyes on Idrissa Seck

Idrissa Seck will likely be a major contender in Senegal’s 2012 elections. As the political standing of incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade weakens – due to widespread discontent with economic stagnation, electricity shortages, and Wade’s recent moves to ease the path to his own re-election – the Senegalese press is increasingly discussing Seck as a potential successor.

Seck, 51, was born a few months after Senegal’s independence.* He is younger not only than the octogenarian Wade, but also than other major contenders from the 2007 presidential elections, in which Seck placed a distant second (he scored 15% to Wade’s 56%). Seck is a former protege of Wade, and served as prime minister from 2002-2004, during Wade’s first term. At this time he was widely seen as a likely successor to Wade. He served a term as mayor of Thies, a large city near Dakar, starting in 2002, but fell out with Wade in 2004 and was imprisoned for seven months in 2005-2006. After running in the 2007 elections, he was re-elected a mayor of Thies in 2009, a post he still holds. At several points since 2007, reconciliations have been announced between Wade and Seck, but it is unclear what this means in practice.
Now, as Wade awaits a decision from the Constitutional Council on his eligibility to run for a third term, some are speculating that Seck could be the next president of Senegal. Rumors are circulating that if the Council invalidates Wade’s candidacy, high-ups within the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party (Parti Démocratique Sénégalais, or PDS) would back Seck as their candidate. Seck, for his part, has apparently reached out to an influential Muslim leader** who backed Wade in the last cycle. Every indication says that Seck will run.
I’ve argued before that the Senegalese opposition is weak and divided. That’s what helped Wade score so highly in 2007, and what prevented any of his rivals from breaking 15%. A lot has changed in Senegalese politics in the past six months, however. Seck might not be the dream candidate of the youth who protest in the streets for change, but he seems to be enjoying serious attention from the political class and the press right now. Much could happen between now and the elections, scheduled for February 2012, but at the moment Seck looks like he is gaining momentum.
*Some sources, however, give Seck’s year of birth as 1959, not 1960.
**This sheikh, Bethio Thioune, is not as influential as he claims (he says he can sway 4-5 million votes, which is over 40% of the Senegalese population), but he is well-known, has a significant following, and is courted by politicians. The fact that Seck has approached him, and that Thioune was somewhat receptive to that approach, may say something about cracks in Wade’s base of support.

“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.