Senegal’s constitution requires that a presidential candidate receive fifty percent of the total votes or face a run-off. Incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade received only thirty-five percent of the vote in the February 26 presidential election, while his chief opposition, Macky Sall, received twenty-six percent. (There were numerous other candidates.) Only about half of the electorate voted, compared with more than seventy percent in the 2007 elections. There will be a run-off between Wade and Sall on March 18. Unlike the case of Cote d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo, Wade’s people have said that he will accept the results of the run-off. He probably will; Senegal is not as internally divided as Cote d’Ivoire, where rival presidential candidates represented profound ethnic, social and economic divisions. Senegal’s democratic institutions, while by no means perfect, are also among the strongest in sub-Saharan Africa.
Chatham House has published a succinct analysis of the electoral strengths and weaknesses of both run-off candidates. Its bottom line: even with the powers of the incumbency, there is a good chance Wade could be defeated. As Chatham House says, many Senegalese are angry that Wade has manipulated the constitution (of which he is the principal author) so that he could run for a third term.
African leaders struggling to remain in office even when there are term limits is an old and sad song. Nevertheless, Wade is at least 85 years of age, and one Kenyan newspaper speculates he is closer to ninety. Why is he risking the humiliation of defeat? To me the most credible explanation is that he is trying to engineer the eventual succession to the presidency of his son, Karim, whom he has promoted to various government posts. Wade attempted to create the office of vice president, which many Senegalese think he intended for Karim. This was not popular, and Wade failed. Macky Sall, on the other hand, has cultivated the grassroots and is popular in Dakar. As a former prime minister and president of the National Assembly, he is a credible presidential candidate that is fifty years of age–neither too young nor too old. Given the immense power of the incumbency in most African countries and Wade’s political skills, Chatham House is right to caution that he might yet win. But, if I were a betting man, I would put my money on Sall. We will see on Sunday.