Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Senegal's Surprise Election Result

One of the nice things in writing about international affairs is that sometimes you get pleasant surprises.

Count the election results out of Senegal as one of those surprises.  Heading into last Sunday's election, Senegal showed signs of following that all-to-familiar African script: an aging strongman leader trying to hold onto power by any means necessary.  But then 85-year old President Abdoulaye Wade made a surprise move, he conceded defeat to his opponent, former Prime Minister Macky Sall, just hours after the polls closed when early results showed that Wade was heading to a solid defeat in the runoff election.

Given the circumstances in the previous few months, this wasn't the expected outcome of Sunday's vote.  At the start of the year, Senegal's most-famous singer, Youssou N'Dour, made a splash when he announced he'd be setting aside his musical career to take on Wade in the upcoming presidential election.  He and Wade had once been incredibly close, but had a falling out several years ago when Wade tried to persuade N'Dour to quash an embarrassing story about Wade's son Karim that was about to be run by a newspaper N'Dour owned.  N'Dour refused, citing his belief in journalistic freedom; the relationship between the two men soured.

It deteriorated further when Wade decided to run for a third term as president, sidestepping a change to Senegal's constitution that limited the president to two terms in office on the grounds that the amendment had been passed after he first took office. Then, on the eve of the election, several opposition candidates, including N'Dour, were barred from the ballot.  All were signs that Wade was trying to turn Senegal's presidency into a vehicle for his continued grip on power, which made Wade's quick concession to Sall all the more surprising.

Sall won by running on a platform that promised an improved quality of life for Senegal's more than 12 million residents by providing increased employment opportunities and cutting taxes on staples like rice.  Wade had become unpopular in Senegal over the perception that he had become out of touch with the problems faced by average Senegalese.  An ill-conceived plan to electrify Senegal's rural areas had left the country suffering from frequent black-outs, which had a negative effect on the economy; meanwhile, Wade spent more than $27 million on a massive statue called “African Renaissance” that looms above the capital, Dakar, from a hillside on the outskirts of the city.

Many Senegalese are hoping that the quick and peaceful democratic transition will serve as a signal to the international community about the stability of Senegal, which remains the only nation in western Africa never to have suffered from a military coup in its 50 years since independence, and will lead to an increase in foreign aid and investment.
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