On the surface, it looks like any other African presidential election.
An incumbent desperately holding on to power, a divided and ineffective opposition, a large swathe of angry, unemployed youth and disfranchised urban populace baying for change.
In other words: nothing out of the ordinary as far as elections go on the continent.
But in Senegal, there is more at stake than the mere possibility of election chaos.
As a secular democracy, with entrenched multi-party values, strong civil institutions and fervent intellectual support for the will of the people, the poll on February 26 will put Senegal’s celebrated commitment to good governance to the test.
Observers say the vote will pose one of the toughest challenges the West African nation has faced since its independence in 1960.
President Abduliye Wade, 85, in office since 2000, will be running for a third term in office.
Despite being roundly criticised for seeking to hang on to power, Wade, a stalwart of Senegalese politics for almost four decades, is set to win the presidential election in the first round following the opposition’s failure to unite behind a single candidate.
Wade’s drew severe criticism in June 2011 when he sought to change the constitution towards reducing the minimum number of votes (from 50 per cent to 25 per cent) a candidate needed to win the polls without the need for a runoff.
His proposals were met with stiff opposition and gave birth to M23 (June 23 movement), made up of opposition parties and civil society activists, who accused Wade of attempting to create a presidential dynasty.
When Wade failed to pass these amendments to the constitution, M23 pushed for Wade to relinquish his presidential ambitions in exchange for a genuinely democratic process.
The street protests that Senegal witnessed thereafter were a culmination of outrage and rising discontent with Wade’s presidency, that many blamed for high food prices, rising unemployment and the deterioration of living conditions in Senegal.
The constitutional court in January 2012 ruled in favour of allowing Wade to run for a third term.
Opposition parties say that the constitution sets the limit to two terms. But Wade says the law does not apply to him because it came into place only in 2001, and he had become president before the law came into play.
Calling the court ruling a “constitutional coup”, M23 has vowed to make the country ungovernable should Wade extend his stay in power. They also allege the presidential vote will be fraught with irregularities and fraud.
In 2000, Wade competed against the then-president Abdou Diouf and defeated him in a runoff that saw the Socialist Party defeated for the first time in four decades.
|MAJOR POLITICAL PARTIES|
Thirteen opposition candidates will compete against Wade in the February 26 vote, making it an election Wade is unlikely to lose.
It is an election pitting former allies and partners against each other.
There is no leading opposition candidate challenging Wade, though Idrissa Seck, a former PM (and now mayor of Thies), Macky Sall, also a former PM and former head of the national assembly and director of Wade’s 2007 election campaign, as well as Cheik Tidiane Gadio, a former foreign affairs minister, are among the prominent challengers.
Seck, once considered a potential successor to Wade, enjoys support in the capital, Dakar, but experts agree that the lack of co-ordination between opposition leaders and an incoherent campaign will leave the opposition disappointed.
In 2007, Seck ran against Wade and secured 15 per cent of the vote, far behind the incumbent president’s 56 per cent.
The opposition was further fractured after Moustapha Niasse and Ousmane Tanor of the Bennino Seil Senegal (Unite to uplift Senegal) parted ways following disagreements over who should be the presidential candidate. Both are currently in the fray, crowding an already over-crowded race.
The opposition is considered to have much support in the urban areas where discontent against Wade runs high.
An estimated 48 per cent of the country’s population are unemployed, brewing frustration and dissent. And while towns like Dakar, Thiene and Podor have experienced protests and clashes between opposition supporters and security forces, Wade is still known to enjoy support in rural areas which account for 60 per cent of the country’s population
But Wade isn’t free of his share of problems this time round.
Whereas in his previous two campaigns, Wade was able to gain the endorsement from a key Marabout, a leader from one of the largest Islamic brotherhoods in the country, he has not been blessed this time round.
The M23 movement
Meanwhile, the birth of M23 movement in opposition to Wade’s efforts to amend the constitution indicates that the incumbent president is likely to face hostilities in some of the larger towns in the country.
Street protests organised by M23 forced Wade to drop his proposal, a historical feat in a country where the constitution has changed at least a dozen times during each presidency.
Following this successful intervention, the movement has turned its attention to mobilising ordinary people to prevent Wade’s re-election.
But the inability to unify behind one candidate and spell out specific alternatives to Wade’s presidency, may hurt the movement.
Meanwhile, Wade has continued to charm supporters and the electorate by promising to eliminate poverty, and implementing grand projects, such as highways, health centres, universities and completing the new international airport.
Though criticised for his love for the grandiose, his supporters see his vision and competence as one of his stronger points.
Wade is known to be a wily politician who has consistently outsmarted his opponents. Little wonder, Senegal’s first president, Leipold Sengor, referred to him as “The Hare”, for his shrewdness.