Democracy in northwest Africa: Mali and Senegal

Trouble is brewing in two (erstwhile) democratic states among the former French Soudan.

Mali experienced a military coup last week, apparently ending a 20-year experience of democracy–and just about a month before new presidential elections were due. There was no sign of the incumbent attempting to stay on for a third term (which would violate the current constitution). Meanwhile, today Senegal has its presidential runoff, and the incumbent is seeking a third term under dubious constitutionality.

These events are distressing because both countries had emerged recently as apparently functioning democracies. The Malian situation may be “collateral damage” from the NATO war in Libya. Touareg rebels, some of whom were among Qaddafi’s mercenaries, have been making gains in the country’s remote east. Evidently, at least part of the military was unsatisfied with the president’s handling of the internal war. Still, they might have waited to see what a newly elected president’s policy would be.

As for Senegal, President Abdoulaye Wade had overseen a constitutional change limiting the president to two terms. He is not the first president ever to make the claim that such a change does not apply to him, because his first term was before the constitution was changed. Most of the others have not gotten away with a third term, but this runoff is said to be close. He just might pull it off on election day, but at what cost to the country’s democracy?

Various news reports have suggested that Wade enters the runoff in a weak position, having won just under 35% of the vote in the first round. Supposedly the other candidates are all endorsing his remaining opponent, former Prime Minister Macky Sall. I would not be so sure. Sall was more than 8 points behind in the first round, and if Wade vs. Opposition were the dominant cleavage, one might have expected the anti-Wade forces to have coordinated on fewer than thirteen (!) candidates, the top two of which managed to combine for less than 40% in the first round. Of course, given a two-round majority system, one need not expect a single opposition candidate, but such a high degree of fragmentation does not bode well–even assuming the election is completely fair. (See first-round results at Psephos.)

Anticipating fragmentation of his opposition, last year Wade attempted to lower the threshold for a first-round victory to 25%.

Mali has a premier-presidential system; Senegal is president-parliamentary. If Mali’s democracy is not quickly restored, then it will no longer be true–as stated by Samuels and Shugart (2010, p.260)–that no premier-presidential system has ever broken down once meeting the thresholds for democracy that the authors established for inclusion of cases in our study.


Among my cherished cartographic possessions is a National Geographic map of Africa from around 1960 that shows these two countries as one, in the Mali Federation. The federation did not last, and the unit initially called Soudan split and became the independent state of Mali.

This map also showed a Union of Central African Republics (French Congo, Chad, and in between them, Ubangi-Shari, later the Central African Republic (singular)). This “union” was even shorter lived.

A 25% threshold to elect a president? Wade backs down

In the face of protests, Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade has backed down over a proposal to change the method of presidential elections.

Instead of a majority-runoff system, Wade wanted to change to allowing 25% to suffice for a first round victory. As the Euronews story comments:

His rivals saw this as a ploy virtually guaranteeing his re-election next February, as the opposition is currently fragmented.

I guess so!

The adjusting of presidential victory thresholds reminds me of the Sandinista ploy in Nicaragua in 2006. The lowering of the threshold there was far less drastic that Wade’s gambit, and paid off–just barely–for Daniel Ortega’s return to the presidency.

Does the old man (he’s 85) in Senegal think he can’t win even 40%? Or 35%? Or 30%?…

Senegal has been generally classed as a democracy for the 11 years that Wade has been president.