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Political Turnover and Social Change in Senegal
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Journal of Democracy 12.3 (2001) 51-62



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Francophone Africa in Flux

Political Turnover and Social Change in Senegal

Dennis Galvan


On 19 March 2000, Senegal reclaimed its cherished status as Africa's most "advanced" democracy. On that day, Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal's dominant political opposition figure for the last quarter-century and a five-time presidential candidate, defeated 19-year incumbent Abdou Diouf of the Socialist Party in the second round of the presidential election. The Socialists had been in power under various names since the country's independence in 1960, first under famed poet and independence leader Léopold Sédar Senghor, and, following Senghor's voluntary resignation in 1980, under Diouf, his handpicked successor. Despite a long tradition of electoral self-rule, Africa's most vibrant free press, and open party competition, Senegal's democratic credentials had been called into question for at least a decade by the apparent impossibility of removing the Socialist Party from office. By graciously accepting defeat, Diouf, like his counterparts in Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT), broke the political monopoly of a deeply entrenched and dominant ruling party. 1 At long last, sopi--the word for change in the Wolof language and the rallying cry of Wade's opposition movement--had arrived. Given the regional context, Wade's victory was all the more significant: Senegal became one of the few African countries to remove a head of government at the ballot box. Moreover, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal's colonial sister state and postcolonial reference society, had just suffered its first military coup in December 1999. [End Page 51]

Although Wade's election victory marks a critical moment in Senegal's political history, it should not be construed as an unequivocal step from semidemocracy to democratic consolidation. The architecture of state-society relations in Senegal is rapidly changing, as the bonds that once linked the state's urban and rural bases of support have loosened. Although these shifts precipitated Wade's electoral triumph, they may yield more far-reaching transformations, possibly to the detriment of Senegal's formally liberal democratic order.

Alternation After 40 Years

With apparent ease, the March 2000 electoral transition ended 40 years of single-party dominance. The Socialist Party, founded by Senghor and initially known as the Senegalese Progressive Union (UPS), had dominated Senegalese politics until the late 1980s. In the first years after independence, the primary challenge facing the UPS was the personal and political rivalry between President Senghor and Prime Minister Mamadou Dia. The conflict culminated in a 1962 coup attempt, for which Dia accepted blame and was imprisoned. Dia's links to rural elites, particularly to leaders of Senegal's powerful Sufi brotherhoods, were broken; thereafter, only Senghor's party enjoyed such ties. In 1963, despite a competitive multiparty contest in legislative elections, Senghor ran unopposed for president. 2

By 1966, Senghor had established a de facto one-party state. In the mid to late 1960s, the heady independence-era dream of rapid economic growth, state-led industrial transformation, and stable pluralism was already beginning to fade. Senegal's peanut-farming economic base was in slow but steady decline, as peasants demanded higher prices and larger agricultural subsidies. 3 Democracy and the tottering developmental state were on a collision course. Within the context of economic stagnation and the gradual but steady erosion of hope for meaningful social change, Senghor's drift into single-party rule prevented an overt crisis and ensured social stability in Senegal.

Despite the domination of the UPS, Senegal remained one of the most liberal and open societies in Africa, and indeed in the postcolonial world. Press freedom, although restricted, was never entirely eliminated. 4 Intellectuals and artists--and, to a lesser extent, labor and civic activists--enjoyed a range of freedoms of expression, despite the government's efforts to incorporate them within Senghor's vaguely democratic-corporatist vision of one-party rule.

In 1976, Senghor reopened Senegalese politics to opposition parties of a predetermined ideological range. His renamed Socialist Party (PS) stood as the official socialist...