27 March 2012
Paul Melly

Paul Melly

Associate Fellow, Africa Programme


Paul Melly was in Senegal for the presidential run-off.

Defeating Abdoulaye Wade at the ballot box on Sunday was just the first step, the easy part. 

Senegal's president-elect now faces a massive weight of expectation. High fuel and food prices, youth unemployment, corruption, the erosion of accountability in state institutions – the in-tray that confronts Macky Sall already overflows.

There won't be any political honeymoon, warned a leading Dakar commentator on the eve of polling. Yet Sall will enter office with one huge asset: the surge of national pride among Senegalese at the decisive, peaceful and transparent manner in which they have used their democratic system to remove a once admired but now aging president who had overstayed his welcome.

A decisive mandate

Within minutes of the polls closing on Sunday evening the scale of Sall's triumph was becoming clear, as results came through from one local voting bureau after another across the country, announced live on radio by reporters on the ground. 

Although some international observers had feared Wade might seek to challenge the result and hang on, most Senegalese political analysts expected him to accept it. In doing so, he has defused the risk of post-election tension and allowed Sall to start planning for the transition and his accession to power.

With the vast majority of results now in, Sall appears to have won 65% of the vote, notching up a majority in most districts of the country. Turnout was hardly improved on the 50% seen in the first round. But such is the scale – and the broad geographical spread – of Sall's victory that this does not seriously weaken his legitimacy. He has a decisive mandate.

The road ahead

Senegal's new president will need to draw on the strength of that public endorsement as he establishes the political base for his new administration. Legislative elections will be held within weeks, renewing the membership of a national assembly currently dominated by Wade's Parti démocratique sénégalais (PDS). Tough bargaining lies ahead to stitch together a solid parliamentary base for Sall’s new government.

But he has to seize the moment. The new president faces huge expectations and they will not be easily met.

Tackling the pressing socio-economic agenda will be difficult, and expensive. Voters' biggest complaint is the cost of living, particularly high food and fuel prices. And that is largely the result of global market trends over which Senegal's government has no control. Yet in his campaign Sall promised in unambiguous terms that he would cut prices. He will therefore have to find cash for subsidies, whether this comes from domestic fiscal resources or international aid.

The donor community – which was desperately worried about the possibility of a Wade third term – will be keen to help the new government of a country that is seen as a lynchpin of democratic stability in West Africa. But budgets are tight and generalized subsidies are regarded with deep scepticism by the IMF and other key partners. Meanwhile, the state school system is in near paralysis because teachers, unpaid for months, have spent much of the academic year on strike. This has worsened the impact of youth unemployment.

Dealing with the big issues of principle will be less demanding.

Sall has stressed the importance of restoring basic governance standards and the principles of accountability and a balance of power between the key institutions – the values of La République – after the highly personalized rule of the latter Wade years. This is a big issue but it may in fact be the simplest to address. A powerful symbolic message will be sent out if Sall acts quickly on his promise to reduce presidential terms to five years, and to entrench the maximum two term limit. 

Equally, there is no serious obstacle to a shift away from Wade's focus on prestige infrastructure projects – though Sall says he will complete those already underway – in favour of basic grassroots development. However, if Sall is to retain public trust and credibility, he has to deliver on the cost of living and on jobs. These problems are particularly intense in the capital and its sprawling suburbs, the cauldron of Senegalese politics.

The task is not quite impossible, and the new leader enters office on a huge wave of goodwill. But the new administration will face the expectations of a public who had come, in the words of a leading Dakar journalist, to feel they were almost being 'strangled' by the Wade regime. Now, he adds, 'Things will happen very fast.' They will certainly have to.

Also read: