In a recent article for the Atlantic.com, I complained about the vanity of Senegal’s president, Wade, who rather than stepping into retirement after two terms has insisted on running for a third. He even went so far as to alter the Constitution to do so. Senegalese voters responded this week by repudiating Wade, who received barely more than one-third of the vote. Now he must stand in a run-off against a challenger who nearly matched his vote totals. The challenger, Macky Sall, is already appealing to the 11 other challengers in the race. So far, he’s won an endorsement from the third-highest vote-getter.
Senegalese politics is highly stylized, and this election is essentially about a generational transfer of power. Wade claims to be 85 years old and is part of an elite born into French colonial rule and weaned on a detached, arrogant top-down style of leadership once distinctly French but now not even employed by politicians in France. By contrast Sall, who is 50 years old, represents a generation who has lived through Senegal’s stagnation and continued economic dependence on France. Unlike other Africans that have avoided civil wars and experienced rapid economic growth in recent years, Senegal has not. Sall need to say little more than that he stands for change. In fact, he stands for youth. In a country of political geriatrics, Sall seems positively youthful. His victory in a vote scheduled for either March 18 or 25 would not transform sleepy Senegal but at least bring the country into the 21st century.
Most importantly, the democratic process in the sub-Saharan, which often merely ratifies the status quo, would send a powerful message to other presidents who bend laws and abandon past promises in an attempt to become legal monarchs. To many African democracies are coming dangerously close to being undermined by political dynasties based on personality cults. For this reason alone, the next Senegalese vote looms large.