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Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 23:06 GMT
Senegal: Where democracy was the winner
Senegalese street celebrations
Senegal celebrates a peaceful change of government
By West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle

The peaceful and democratic change of power in Senegal was a highly unusual event for an Africa dominated by military or otherwise authoritarian regimes.

The result is not only important for Senegal, but could have a profound influence on democracy elsewhere in Africa by encouraging voters to realise that other long-term leaders are not invincible.

I first visited Senegal almost 20 years ago, when Abdou Diouf began his reign in power. Until Monday, he stayed there.

Like most Senegalese voters, I knew that Diouf remained in power through clever and sometimes corrupt political practice. But the very fact that he remained so long made him appear unassailable.

Abdou Diouf
Abdou Diouf conceded defeat graciously
On the eve of the elections, I was discussing the possible outcome with an old Senegalese friend. My friend was intending to vote for the opposition leader, Abdoulaye Wade, not because he particularly liked him, but because he knew the Socialist Party behind the long-time president Abdou Diouf was corrupt.


My friend was however convinced that Mr Wade would not win. He was not sure how, but he was certain that the ruling Socialists would somehow triumph, possibly by rigging the result.

I felt the same. My head said it was theoretically possible for Wade to win, but my heart and my instinct said it would never happen.

But it did, and the reason lies in the determination of the Senegalese people and their level of political sophistication.

Some people have also argued that the democratic change depended ultimately on the goodwill of President Abdoul Diouf, who graciously conceded defeat when it was clear that he had lost.

Abdoulaye Wade
Abdoulaye Wade: Led party from its inception
To some extent, this is true. However, it is likely that if Mr Diouf had tried to hang on, despite losing, it would have led to civil unrest, probably prompting a coup d'etat.

The ultimate result would then have been the same. Senegalese voters would have demanded fresh elections which Abdoulaye Wade would then, again, have almost certainly won.

History of democracy

Thus the real question is not why Diouf conceded to the will of the people, but why Senegal is such an unusually democratic African country. Part of the answer lies in history.

The first president of Senegal at independence in 1960 was Leopold Sedar Senghor. Mr Senghor was a considerable intellectual figure as well as being a wily politician.

He was the first black member of the elite Paris Literary Organisation, the Academie Francaise, and a renowned poet and philosopher.

Senegalese women vote
Senegal is among Africa's most politically aware countries
After a period of single party rule, it seems that Mr Senghor wanted to make his country as unique as himself and to give it an aura of democracy.

In 1974, he created a strictly controlled multi-party system, with four parties allowed, which had to stick to names and political labels which he, Senghor, designated. One of those parties would be "Liberal". It was called the Senegalese Democratic Party and was to be led by Abdoulaye Wade.

Gradually, the genie got out of the bottle, and the number of political parties in Senegal increased. The business establishment stuck firmly behind and financed the Socialist Party, which despite its name was never left-wing, and which became synonymous with the state.

Powerful personality

Because of Abdoulaye Wade's powerful personality, the Democratic Party became the main opposition force. The existence of numerous political parties raised the level of political consciousness among individual voters to a level much higher than in most of Western Europe.

Man listens to radio
Radio and mobile phones brought democracy to the people
In Africa, partly because of poverty, politicians tend to have a much more profound effect on ordinary people's lives. They have it in their gift to deliver roads or hospitals and because the people need these so badly, they minutely scrutinise every single move that politicians make.

Thus, the conditions were set in Senegal for a flowering of political consciousness.

Senegal's political sophistication led in turn to a vibrant free press. Dozens of newspapers are published here, and every single one of them treats politics much more seriously than the mass circulation tabloids, available in countries such as the United Kingdom.


More recently, technology has contributed to Senegalese democracy. Several FM radio stations have been established, which have given all currents of opinions a platform almost to propagate their ideas.

During the election, urban Senegalese were walking around with a radio glued to one ear and a mobile phone glued to the other.

The FM stations and the cellphone networks revolutionised this presidential election. The stations sent reporters to hundreds of individual voting bureaux and within minutes of the local returning officer announcing the result, the reporters got on their cellphones and broadcast it.

Woman at polling station
The second round of voting sealed Mr Diouf's fate
In these circumstances, it would have been very difficult for the authorities to rig the result without the electorate knowing all about it.

Voting system

Another factor which had a crucial influence on the result, and more generally on democracy in Senegal, was the electoral system itself, which has two rounds of voting.

President Diouf won the first round in which there were eight candidates, but not with a large enough majority to avoid a second run-off round between himself and Abdoulaye Wade.

It seems from analysis of the electoral arithmetic that many voters who cast their ballots for Diouf in the first round switched to Wade in the second.

It is not clear why this happened. But it may well have been a psychological phenomenon.

Many electors may have seen the first round results and suddenly realised that voting the opposition into power was a real tangible possibility. Abdou Diouf, the president who had almost become a monarch, was suddenly vulnerable, and the electorate decided to give him a coup de grace.

Democracy the winner

Political analysis and arguments about Senegal's extraordinary election will no doubt continue for years. But one thing is clear - the people got the result they wanted and democracy triumphed.

This has made most Senegalese rightfully proud. One of the Dakar newspapers commented on the day after the election that the real point was not whether Abdou Diouf or Abdoulaye Wade occupies the presidency.

The crucial thing was that the people have proved that they can change their president. This is a lesson, the newspaper wrote, that will never be forgotten.

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21 Mar 00 | Africa
UN praises Senegal elections
20 Mar 00 | Africa
Senegal votes for change
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