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  • Senegal's Empty Elections
  • Babacar Kanté (bio)

In early 1993, Senegal held popular presidential and parliamentary elections for the seventh consecutive time without interruption since it became independent in 1960. Yet the balloting—for president on February 21 and for the unicameral, 120-member National Assembly on May 9—failed to attract the broad participation or attain the legitimacy necessary if effective democracy is to take root and flourish. Incumbent chief executive Abdou Diouf and his ruling Socialist Party (PS) maintained the party's unbroken hold on the presidency and the Assembly, winning by comfortable margins over their longtime rivals Abdoulaye Wade and his Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS).

Basic problems of democratic legitimacy and public trust in the political classes remain unresolved, however. Pre-electoral and postelectoral dealings among the parties, their failure during the campaign seriously to address the country's many pressing economic and social problems, and the occurrence of troubling delays in the release of the full official results (especially from the presidential race) have aroused widespread disgust and heightened the contempt in which most Senegalese hold their country's politicians. There have been no public disorders like those that broke out in the wake of the 1988 elections, but this may be a token more of resignation than of confidence in the political system and its results.

Senegal's plight is sobering, for it has long been considered one of the most liberal and democratic countries in Africa. The Senegalese were initiated into "political life" in the Western sense of the term as [End Page 96] early as 1789, when the colony of Senegal sent a list of grievances to the French Estates General, then meeting (for the last time, it turned out) at Versailles. From that time on, and in a continuous fashion, Senegal held pluralist elections up till its independence in 1960. In 1848, it elected the first colonial deputy to the French legislature. In 1914, Blaise Diagne became the first black African to be elected to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris. This election took place under a 1913 law that mandated voter-identity checks and the secret ballot.

For reasons having to do with this electoral tradition, Senegal has long seemed to stand apart from most other African countries. After the coming of independence to Africa, Senegal distinguished itself on the political plane in two ways: by recognizing freedom of association, and by officially providing for multiparty elections. In these areas, it is true, law and actual practice were not always in accord. Yet despite the imperfections of its political system, Senegal's lofty reputation has endured rather well. In order to understand this situation, it suffices to recall the political scene presented by postcolonial Africa. Several African countries functioned for a time without constitutions, including Benin, Togo, Niger, and Chad. Others, like the Congo in 1977, have seen their constitutions suspended in the aftermath of a coup d'état. Still others modified their constitutions so often that they became empty shells: in the late 1970s, Mauritania saw four different constitutional texts succeed one another in slightly more than two years. In this context, it is not hard to understand the reputation enjoyed by Senegal.

The first Constitution of the independent Republic of Senegal, promulgated on 26 August 1960 (and followed in this respect by the Constitution of 27 March 1963, which is still in force) provided for the possibility of political parties forming and taking part freely in universal-suffrage elections. From 1960 to 1974, however, the country experienced a period of de facto one-party rule under President Léopold Sédar Senghor and his Senegalese Progressive Union (UPS), which would rename itself the Socialist Party in 1976. The history of general elections in Senegal begins with the peaceful breakup of the postcolonial Federation of Mali in 1960. On September 5 of that year, an electoral college established by the Constitution passed a few weeks earlier chose Senghor, a distinguished French-speaking poet, as the first president. In December 1963, even though Senghor was the only candidate for the presidency, the opposition did take part in the legislative races. Senghor won reelection with an 85-percent majority, while his UPS...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 96-108
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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