On the evening of March 25, President Abdoulaye Wade called his former protégé and conceded defeat in the second round of the presidential election. It turned out to be a lopsided contest with Macky Sall—a former prime minister and president of the National Assembly—garnering 65.80 percent of the vote. He was inaugurated as Senegal’s fourth president on April 2.
Both local and foreign comme
ntators were quick to salute the resilience of Senegal’s democracy, particularly in light of the disastrous coup that stunned Mali just a few days earlier. The election’s peaceful outcome was indeed encouraging considering the political crisis set off by Wade’s contested candidacy for a third term. Despite their initial outrage, opposition activists allowed the electoral process to follow its course rather than engage in a boycott with unpredictable consequences. Their patience eventually paid off: all 12 challengers who were defeated in the first round effectively rallied their supporters behind Sall’s candidacy—under the coalition Bennoo Bokk Yakaar—to oust the unpopular incumbent.
It also appears that President Wade’s efforts to buy votes in his traditional strongholds, including in the Diourbel district—home to the Grand Mosque of Touba, the center of the Mourid Brotherhood—failed to sway voters. Faced with a humiliating defeat, Wade decided to put the interest of the Senegalese people ahead of his own, knowing that a protracted electoral dispute could trigger more violence across the country.
Despite these positive developments, Senegal’s future remains uncertain. The strength of its democracy will not only hinge on the new president’s ability to deliver on the promise of more jobs and access to basic utility services, but also on his willingness to rehabilitate Senegal’s institutions, which were routinely undercut during Wade’s 12-year rule. Parliament, for instance, has become little more than a rubber stamp since the opposition’s boycott of the 2007 legislative elections and Sall’s dismissal as president of the National Assembly the following year. Likewise, the Constitutional Council, which validated Wade’s candidacy, has lost much of its credibility in the eyes of the electorate.
Broad-based political parties have also been declining. Defections by Macky Sall, Idrissa Seck, and other senior members have weakened the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party, while the Socialist Party has experienced an even steeper decline since the historical defeat of President Abdou Diouf in 2000.
Furthermore, this past election drew attention to the nefarious role that money has played in the political process, a clear result of lax campaign finance laws. In its preliminary report, the Electoral Observation Mission of the European Union made a point of criticizing the lack of transparency in the management of campaign funds that has allowed the circulation of large sums of untraceable money.
In this context, the proliferation of protest movements and the emergence of individual challengers to the regime, including Youssou N’dour, come as little surprise: they are both logical expressions of civil society’s disaffection with the political process. And while voters calmly mobilized in support of the opposition, their low turnout—at 55 percent—underscores their frustration with the country’s governing class.
Unlike his predecessor, President Sall does not benefit from the support of a historical party with a strong identity and a reliable national base. Even if his anti-Wade coalition remains viable and prevails in the upcoming legislative elections, he will likely face serious challenges early on in his presidency as he tries to formulate and implement his policies. Bennoo Bokk Yakaar is, indeed, a diverse coalition with no shortage of outspoken and charismatic leaders, such as Ousmane Tanor Dieng and Moustapha Niasse, whose priorities may not always mesh with those of the president.
With a major political realignment likely to take place in the near future, Senegal may yet face another tumultuous period. Only through the rehabilitation of independent, representative and accountable institutions will the country be able to confidently navigate through the next phase of its democratization process.