Senegal turns to runoff vote

With less than one week to go until Senegal’s presidential runoff, the campaign’s narrative since the end of the first round has consistently been one of the opposition mobilizing behind the candidacy of former prime minister Macky Sall and against current president Abdoulaye Wade.

Wade won the first round of the election on February 26 with 34.8% of the vote to Sall’s 26.6%.

In the meanwhile, all 12 of the defeated candidates have endorsed Sall, including former prime minister Moustapha Niasse, who finished in third place, Parti Socialiste candidate Ousamne Tanor Dieng, who finished in fourth place and Idrissa Seck, also a former prime minister, who finished in fifth place. Sall, together with the 12 former candidates, joined for a rally last Sunday in Obelisk Square in Dakar, the site of several violent anti-Wade protests in advance of the first round vote.  Sall and the former candidates have formed the makeshift Alliance of Forces for Change in advance of Sunday’s runoff.

Prominent — and popular — Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, who was refused a spot on the ballot in advance of the first round, has endorsed Sall as well.  And so has the M23 movement, by and large — the loose coalition that came together to oppose Wade’s arguably unconstitutional run for a third term.  Although the M23 movement did not endorse any first-round candidate, it has mobilized behind Sall as the anti-Wade candidate.

The tense and sometimes violent protests leading up the the first round have now largely replaced by a triumphant opposition confident of victory.  Sall is popular in both Dakar and the countryside, and, with so much of the opposition to Wade lining up behind Sall, it seems more likely than not that Sall will win the runoff. 

Sall was once Wade’s political right-hand man, serving as his prime minister until 2007, but turned against him as Wade increasingly grew more interested in installing his son, Karim, as his successor.

Wade’s allies claim that increased turnout will pull them to victory in the second round (only slightly more than 50% of the voters turned out in the first round).  But it seems unlikely that voters, disenchanted with Wade in February, would come out in support now.

Indeed, the runoff looks to be shaping up much like the iconic 2000 Senegalese election, when then-incumbent Abdou Diouf won the first round, but lost the second round convincingly to then-challenger Wade.  Diouf resigned and Senegal observed a peaceful transfer of power, all too rare for Africa.  This time around, though, Wade will be observing the entrenched incumbent’s role.

But amid the election coverage, a more fundamental question lies beyond: what happens next in Senegal if Sall wins the election?

In the first instance, we can look to Sall’s own campaign promises — he has pledged to roll back many of the constitutional changes made by Wade in his two terms in office, including a commitment to roll back the presidential term from seven years to five years.  He has also said that his top priority will be to lower the cost of food prices, which have risen substantially in the past few years.

In the worst case, though, it’s an opportunity for the ruling elite (sans Wade and his family) to have its cake and eat it, too: Sall represents continuity without the nasty business of triggering a constitutional crisis.

If you look to the growth of the BRIC countries as the global economy’s top development of the last decade, or to the ‘Asian tigers’ of the 1990s as the top development of that decade, there’s a more-than-even bet to look to Africa’s economic ‘cheetahs’ to be the similar story in the global economy in the 2010s.  Furthermore, if you look to Senegal’s economy, you will quickly find that the Wade years haven’t been incredibly promising in pursuit of the kind of market reforms that would put Senegal in a position to capitalize on any pan-African economic boom.  Senegal neither has the mineral resources (like Nigeria or Angola) or the business infrastructure (like Ghana or Botswana) to vaunt to top-performer status.

So given the one-time closeness of Wade and Sall, it’s not unreasonable to worry that Sall’s election would result in the continued stagnation of the Senegalese economy.

As Sall seems increasingly likely to win on Sunday, it appears that Senegal will successfully avoid backtracking in its hard-won progress toward a mature democracy.  But it has been 12 years since the iconic transfer of power from Diouf to Wade — and democratic stability is only one of several ingredients necessary to maximize economic growth.  The next president will have to do more than just preside over yet another peaceful transfer of power for Senegal to make real progress.

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