Macky Sall has won Senegal’s presidential race, and incumbent Abdoulaye Wade has conceded defeat, paving the way for the second peaceful transfer of power in Senegal in 12 years.
In contrast to the tense — and sometimes violent — days leading up to the first round of the Senegalese vote, the days leading up to the runoff were relatively peaceful as opposition to Wade coalesced around Sall, his former prime minister.
As votes came in Sunday, it became clear that Wade would not muster enough support to win — Wade won the first round with 34.8%, but it appeared that Sall would improve on his second-place 26.6% by consolidating virtually all of the non-Wade voters in the runoff.
A telling headline in Senegal’s Dakar-based Le Quotidien simply proclaimed, “Goodbye Wade!”
The sentiment is emblematic of a second-round vote that had become less of a choice between competing policies, but a referendum on the unpopular Wade — the entire spectrum of Wade opponents united completely in the second-round campaign less in favor of Sall than in opposition to Wade.
It remains to be seen whether Sall can carry through on the enormous hopes of the opposition in lowering food prices, revitalizing Senegal’s economy, reducing corruption and rolling back some of the constitutional changes that Wade had pushed through (such as reducing the presidential term back to five years).
Given that Sall served as Wade’s prime minister and protégé for much of the past decade, it would be naive to expect more rupture than continuity.
For the moment, however, Senegal should be rightly proud of having prosecuted a generally free and open election, marking yet another (so far) peaceful transfer of power, starting with Wade’s congratulatory phone call yesterday to Sall conceding his apparent defeat in the polls.
The election, which stoked strong passions among Senegalese voters, was not perfect: some candidates (including the popular singer Youssou N’Dour) were not permitted to run at all, and Wade’s police often used heavy-handed techniques in the days leading up to the first round, resulting in at least six deaths in pre-election violence. That Wade made it to the runoff at all is because he ran for reelection, in the face of a constitutional amendment that he passed in 2003 limiting the president to two terms — Wade argued, and Senegal’s constitutional court upheld, the notion that the limit only began applying to Wade in his second term, an argument that most Senegalese found dubious.
Nonetheless, with neighboring Mali’s government overthrown only last week in a coup, Senegal’s example is an all-too-rare example of an African country taking real strides in building sustained and steady democratic norms.
Just 12 years ago, Wade was the challenger ousting the longtime incumbent — then-president Abdou Diouf stood down peacefully and Wade became president, a milestone in a line of gradual steps toward deeper democracy in Senegal. Sunday’s vote will become another gentle building block in that tradition, notwithstanding its imperfections.