Dakar, Senegal — Political talk flows freely in Senegal, one of Africa's few multiparty states. Unlike many other countries in Africa, where people look over their shoulders before criticizing the government, Senegalese relish their freedom to speak openly without fear of reprisal.
But this year, weeks of violent riots - after President Abdou Diouf's disputed reelection in February - and a massive, year-long student strike have put democracy here to a severe test.
A continuing economic crunch, rising joblessness, and a fast-growing population may further strain the delicate political fabric in this West African nation.
``You should never look at Senegal as a firm democracy,'' says Ibrahima Sane, a Senegalese government journalist. ``I think there's the political will to let it [democracy] evolve. But you have to give us another five to ten years.''
One of several less-obvious pressures on democracy here, Mr. Sane and others point out, is the low level of education. Only 28 percent of Senegalese can read and write.
``The problem of this democracy is you have so much illiteracy you can't explain the rules and principles of democracy,'' says Sane, news editor for government-run Radio Senegal.
He and other Senegalese note that political loyalty is still to individuals, rather than to to parties or ideas.
A Western diplomat says several other factors could stem democracy.
One is a steady centralization of political power in the presidency at the cost of less power for government ministers.
Another is parliament's inability or unwillingness to oppose presidential bills, which could make it easy to win passage of even major constitutional amendments that might chip away at democratic rights. In fact, many Senegalese refer to their parliament as an ``applause gallery'' because of the unswerving loyalty of the ministers who belong to President Diouf's Socialist Party.
(There are 17 opposition parties in Senegal, but the opposition has only 17 of 120 parliamentary seats.)
Some Senegalese are discouraged by what they see as mounting government corruption and Mr. Diouf's lack of direction.
``The political situation is not settled. There is still a lot of dissatisfaction,'' says Landing Savane, a leftist candidate who contested the presidential elections.
Official results of that election gave Diouf 73 percent, compared to 25 percent for his main opponent, Abdoulaye Wade. Mr. Wade, who was one of four candidates sponsored by a political party disputed the results.
Riots broke out as soon as the winner was announced. Diouf declared a state of emergency, imposed a curfew, and arrested Wade and several other members of the opposition. Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, expressed concern that the government had arrested opponents of Diouf, including Wade, for their political views, and not because of any criminal activities.
Wade was convicted of encouraging the riots, but was pardoned by the President. Tensions finally eased when Wade agreed to political talks.
But the Diouf-Wade negotiations accomplished little, and key issues that will further test the strength of democratic rule remain unsettled.
Wade is still pushing for electoral reforms, including mandatory use of voting booths for secret voting. Use of such booths is currently optional, and many ignore them in favor of voting publicly. Diouf says he will offer an electoral-reform package to parliament.
Much of Wade's support appears to be less for him personally than a register of discontent about poor economic conditions and the ruling party's long hold on power.
The nation-wide student strike over demands for better educational facilities and more teachers was finally settled this fall, after the government made major concessions to students. But such concessions merely postpone dealing with a funding crisis in education, several sources say.
At the same time, Senegal is following a stiff program of economic reforms, which is likely to lead to still less government employment, further reductions in services, and to food-price hikes as government subsidies and other spending continue to be cut.
The International Monetary Fund has recently reported that the reforms are beginning to revive the economy, with higher growth rates and less inflation. But it is unclear how soon the average Senegalese might feel any direct benefits.
Many Senegalese say their love for freedom of expression could be an important factor in maintaining democracy here. It is something people will not give up lightly, they say.
A free, independent press often lambasts the President through pointed political cartoons. Civil servants here openly critique their President, something which does not happen, for example, in Kenya, whose leaders pride themselves on running a democracy.
The government does not allow interviews with the opposition on government-run television and radio. But one government official says this policy is being reconsidered.
``We Senegalese say what we think,'' says a large-framed Senegalese squeezed with two others into the back seat of a small taxi.
``As long as they let us talk, there will never be a revolution,'' one educated Senegalese reportedly told a Western diplomat.
But the President's challenge now, a Senegalese sociologist says, is to avoid a repeat of 1988, when many people felt the country was bordering on ``anarchy.''