Brief Notes on Senegal’s Upcoming Legislative Elections

On July 30, Senegal will hold legislative elections to fill 165 seats in the unicameral National Assembly, including 15 seats to represent the Senegalese diaspora. Legislators serve five-year terms. The elections come between the 2012 presidential election and the 2019 presidential election, and as such they are the field of considerable maneuvering in advance of the 2019 contest. These elections are also the first to follow the 2016 referendum that brought various changes to Senegal’s political system. Most relevant to these legislative elections are “amendments [that] encourage even more party splintering, since the new constitution reduces barriers to independent candidacy.”

As Jeune Afrique (French) explains, before the official campaign began on May 30/31, there were initially two major coalitions of parties: Benno Bokk Yakaar (United in Hope), associated with incumbent President Macky Sall and the current parliamentary majority, and the opposition coalition Manko Taxawu Sénégal.

Within the opposition, however, disagreements (French) about who should head the coalition’s list caused a split, resulting in the formation of a major splinter group called Coalition gagnante Wattu Sénégal, with a list headed by former President Abdoulaye Wade. The remnants of Manko Taxawu Sénégal put forth a list headed by Khalifa Sall, mayor of the capital Dakar – who remains in jail, in a case I discussed here. Khalifa Sall’s key ally in the coalition is former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck.

Meanwhile, Benno Bokk Yakaar’s list (French) is headed by current Prime Minister Mohammed Dionne. BBY also includes veteran politicians such as Ousmane Tanor Dieng of the Socialist Party* and Moustapha Niasse, current president of the National Assembly and head of the Alliance of the Forces of Progress. The international Francophone press largely expects BBY to win, given the opposition’s internal divisions and BBY’s big tent. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what Wade is like in parliament, and also to see whether Khalifa Sall’s partisans are successful not just in getting him elected, but in getting him freed.

*Khalifa Sall is the leader of a dissident wing of the Socialist Party.



Senegal: Conflict Inside the Socialist Party

Senegal’s Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste) was in power from 1960-2000 and remains one the country’s major political parties. It helped current President Macky Sall win the second round of the 2012 elections, but a Jeune Afrique article (French) this week gives some insight into the party’s internal divisions. These divisions partly concern the 2019 elections and whether the party should back Sall or run its own candidate.

Highlighting these divisions, as the article shows, is the aftermath of clashes at the party’s headquarters in Dakar, the capital, last March 5. The clashes (French) were between supporters of longtime party leader Ousmane Tanor Dieng and Dakar’s Mayor Khalifa Sall. At stake last March was the party’s decision regarding a referendum on changes to the structure of Senegal’s presidency – Dieng supported the “yes” vote (and thereby supported Macky Sall’s camp) while Khalifa Sall supported the “no” camp. In the referendum, the “yes” camp won heavily. Khalifa Sall, I’ve been told by journalists in Dakar, is perhaps the politician whom Macky Sall fears the most.

Going back to the Jeune Afrique article, some of Khalifa Sall’s supporters were recently jailed. The group includes some local politicians and other party officials, including Bamba Fall, the mayor of a major neighborhood in Dakar called Medina. Jeune Afrique writes that the jailing has evoked bitterness among Khalifa Sall’s supporters, who are gearing up for a broader intra-party conflict over the 2019 elections. While Dieng and his camp appear likely to support the incumbent president, Khalifa Sall’s camp leans toward running an independent socialist candidate.

Another opposition newspaper (French) complains that different instances of political violence in Senegal are being treated differently – in other words, that the powers that be are using the courts to suppress political dissent. Senegal is not a major theatre of political violence, but the legal battles, intra-party struggles, and occasional clashes now all offer insights into how the 2019 campaign is already beginning.


“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.