Strangling Democracy in Senegal

Senegal was once considered West Africa’s oasis of stability, but now it is a place of deadly repression. This year, at least six people have been killed, dozens injured and scores arrested during protests over President Abdoulaye Wade’s efforts to run for a third term in the election to be held Sunday.

Even though the Constitution sets a two-term limit for the president, Senegal’s Constitutional Council has ruled — based on a disputed legal interpretation — that Mr. Wade is eligible to run again. A close look at his time in office, however, suggests that granting him a third term would be terrible for democracy.

Mr. Wade was celebrated as a symbol of democracy in March 2000, when he was elected president, ending 40 years of rule by the Socialist Party. He had competed unsuccessfully for more than two decades, but this time the incumbent, Abdou Diouf, failed to gain a majority in the initial voting. That led to a runoff, which Mr. Wade won. Before Mr. Diouf, Senegal had known only one president — Léopold Sédar Senghor — since gaining independence from France in 1960.

In his first year in office, Mr. Wade bolstered his democratic credentials by calling for a new constitution, which voters approved in 2001. It set a two-term limit for the presidency. He also abolished a Senate that Mr. Diouf had created and that his Socialists had dominated.

Little by little, however, enthusiasm for Mr. Wade was replaced by fear that he was turning toward authoritarianism — especially after his re-election in 2007, when opposition leaders accused him of electoral fraud. Legislative and municipal elections were repeatedly delayed. Corruption steadily increased.

Now Mr. Wade seems to be replicating his predecessor’s undemocratic practices, perverting judicial and legislative institutions and restraining fundamental liberties.

According to Amnesty International, leaders of the opposition and civic groups, journalists and ordinary Senegalese have been intimidated, arrested, tortured and prosecuted. On Feb. 17, a presidential candidate, Cheikh Bamba Dièye, and the opposition leader Ibrahima Sène were detained on a day when a dozen others were wounded. Last month, the human rights activist Alioune Tine, who has led a movement to deny Mr. Wade a third term, was arrested; he was set free after two days of protests and international pressure. Over the years, other political leaders have been detained for longer periods, including the opposition leader Jean-Paul Dias and his son, Barthélémy Dias.

Mr. Wade has weakened democratic institutions that he helped set up and has recreated in an even less democratic form some institutions that were abolished early in his tenure. The Senate, for example, was re-established in 2007, but now the president appoints 65 of its 100 members, with only 35 elected. In the old Senate, three-quarters of the 60 members were elected. In seeking a third term, the president is widely believed to be preparing for his son, Karim, whom he named a key minister, to succeed him.

Finally, Mr. Wade controls the judicial system and the Council of State, decides on the careers of judges and appoints the Constitutional Council. Most decisions by these institutions have been in his favor, notably the council’s ruling that he could seek a third term. The council accepted his argument that the term limit did not apply to him because the new Constitution was not in effect when he was first elected in 2000.

Still, the decision violates that Constitution’s spirit. In a young electoral system, term limits are a guarantee of continuing democracy. Without them, a powerful president unconcerned about accountability can use patronage to control institutions like the legislature and courts, and through them rig the mechanisms of elections in his favor.

After the council’s decision — and in the face of continuing repression — opposition groups united and called for the protests that began in January.

The protesters are not alone. A statement from the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, called on Senegalese officials to honor “Senegal’s democratic traditions, which have laid the foundations for its long history of stability and social cohesion.” Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns has said that Mr. Wade’s candidacy presents risks to Senegal’s stability and democracy. And the International Federation for Human Rights has urged authorities to “immediately stop the ongoing repression.”

Abdoulaye Wade has a choice: Will he enter history by listening to citizens’ demands and the advice of friends in the international community? Or will he risk being remembered as the one responsible for Senegal’s reversal from an electoral democracy to a facade democracy or, worse, an authoritarianism that destabilizes the country?

By Landry Signé, a fellow in the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

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