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Will President Wade push Senegal toward an uprising?

Abdoulaye Wade's bid for a third term as Senegal's president has raised the possibility of a popular uprising or violence in a country previously seen as one of Africa's greatest success stories. 

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It is in this atmosphere of political and economic disrepair that Wade has decided to run for a third term, a step many view as unconstitutional. The Constitutional Council, siding with the president, reasons that because the two-term limit was imposed in 2001, it does not apply retroactively to Wade’s first term. At one point in the summer of 2011, the administration also attempted to lower the vote threshold for a first-round victory from 50 percent to 25 percent, in a bid to avoid runoff elections. The move set off violent opposition protests. More recently, on Dec. 22, opposition Socialist Party youth leader Barthelemy Dias allegedly shot and killed a man during a confrontation with Wade supporters in Dakar. Since then, clashes between protesters and police have become increasingly violent, spreading throughout the country and touching the lives of ordinary citizens. On Jan. 30 in Podor, a quiet town some 300 miles north of Dakar, two civilians were killed when police fired live rounds at protesters.

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Growing antigovernment sentiment has fueled the formation of several new opposition movements with mass appeal. Foremost among these are Y’en a marre, or “enough is enough,” and the June 23 Movement (M23). The latter is a coalition of 60 opposition and civil society groups, while Y’en a marre is led by socially engaged hip-hop musicians from the group Keurgui, who strike a chord with younger Senegalese. However, this popular mobilization has not resulted in a strong and unified opposition. The well-known singer Youssou N’Dour hoped to challenge Wade in this month’s election, but the Constitutional Council rejected his candidacy on the grounds that he lacked enough valid signatures. A total of 14 candidates remain, and none appears likely to pose a serious threat to Wade in the first round.

Many Senegalese feel that Wade has taken everything and they have nothing left to lose. If the incumbent is seen as having stolen the election, the country’s long record of peaceful transfers of power could come to an end. France, the United States, and the United Nations have begun to take notice of the deteriorating situation, but Foreign Minister Madicke Niang recently rebuffed external criticism of Wade’s bid for a third term, saying, “Senegal has nothing to learn from anybody concerning democracy.” The international community will clearly need to show unity and determination in insisting that the upcoming vote be conducted fairly, transparently, and peacefully; that the police refrain from using excessive force against protesters both before and after the election; and that any postelection complaints be adjudicated impartially, in accordance with the rule of law and democratic norms. There are only two weeks left before the balloting, but it is not too late to shore up Senegal’s wavering democracy.

Brendan Harrison is a Program Associate at Freedom House

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