Paul Melly
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

Abdoulaye Wade failed to get anywhere near the 50% threshold for first ballot victory in Senegal's 26 February presidential election, which would have given the 85 year-old a fresh seven year term of office.

He now faces a tough run-off on 25 March, against his former protégé Macky Sall. Some pundits are already writing Wade's political obituary, though he has dominated Senegalese politics since his election in 2000.

Barely half the electorate voted in the February first round, compared with a 70.5% turnout in the 2007 election, which Wade won outright. So the president's campaign team will be working hard to mobilize the many voters who stayed at home this time.

Senegal's veteran head of state has remarkable self-belief and the skills of a political deal-maker who has staged comebacks before. His capacity to turn the race around should not be dismissed and the outcome of the second round is not a foregone conclusion. But there is a real chance that Wade could be defeated. And in stark contrast with Côte d'Ivoire's former head of state Laurent Gbagbo, Wade's campaign team have stated that the president will accept the run-off result.

Wade was doubly unlucky in the first round: he fell far short of the winning post, with just 34.8% of the vote, according to official provisional results, and the other candidate who qualified for the second round was Macky Sall. 'Macky' has been the name so often cited on the streets of Dakar as the one figure with the political profile and campaign skills to defeat the president. 

Sall approaches the run-off from a strong base, having won 26.5% of the vote. His style is low key, in sharp contrast to Wade's very personalized approach to politics, but he has spent three years assiduously building support in villages and small towns, as well as Dakar's sprawling poor suburbs. As the candidate with the greatest appeal to urban youth he has probably benefitted from the electoral commission's decision to exclude the candidacy of singer Youssou N'Dour, hugely popular among dakarrois and who has endorsed Sall for the second round. The collapse in support for Wade was particularly steep in the capital, plunging from more than 607,000 five years ago to just 189,493 in the 26 February vote.

Sall's chances in the second round depend on his ability to mobilize those who voted for other opposition candidates or abstained in the first ballot behind a call to unite against Wade. His gentle public style and openness to alliances should facilitate this task. However, Sall's greatest advantage may be the way Wade approached the presidential race, presenting himself as the one man who could lead Senegal. Wade's determination to stand again and his success in persuading Senegal's constitutional council to let him run for a third term, despite a limit of two terms written into the constitution, angered many Senegalese who had once supported him. Furthermore, the president placed his unpopular son Karim in key government roles, and attempted to create a vice-presidency that many saw as the springboard for an eventual Karim succession.

'All against Wade' could be a powerful mobilizing slogan. The 25 March vote will show whether personal ambition could be the veteran president's undoing, in a country where national pride in democratic government is stronger than loyalty to any individual politician.

Also read:

Senegal's Elections: Towards Dictatorship or Consolidating Democracy?
Programme Paper, Paul Melly, February 2012