Senegal's main opposition leader was in court recently, charged with inciting riots after February's disputed presidential election. Abdoulaye Wade argued that the court had no jurisdiction over him since he is Senegal's true president. Socialist Party incumbent Abdou Diouf stole the election through fraud, the opposition leader claimed.
The judge dismissed the motion, and the verdict in the trial of Mr. Wade and seven members of his Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) is expected May 11.
Wade's maneuver, while perhaps a legal long shot, reflects the opposition's frustration in trying to win power in this country, long reputed to be a model democracy.
``... For the first time since independence, the Socialist Party felt it could lose power through elections,'' said a Senegalese historian. That put Mr. Diouf and the Socialists' commitment to multiparty democracy to the test. That test - with fraud charges and riots during the voting and Wade's trial - raises questions about the future of democracy here.
A former French colony, Senegal has a long history of multiparty elections.
It first sent a deputy to the French National Assembly in 1848 and held competitive municipal elections beginning in the 19th century. Except for a brief period in the beginning of the 1970s, Senegal has had a multiparty system since independence in 1960. The system has been dominated by the Socialist Party. Wade's Senegalese Democratic Party is considered to be middle-of-the-road.
In 1981, President Leopold Senghor turned over power to Prime Minister Diouf.
The 1988 campaign was a bitter one, with the candidates exchanging personal attacks and the opposition expressing outrage at the government's refusal to rewrite the electoral laws, which it says favor the ruling party.
``There has been fraud in all elections since independence, and with Diouf there is more fraud yet,'' said Landing Savane, a left-wing presidential candidate.
Idrissa Seck, Wade's campaign manager, complained that the Socialists had more access to the media than the opposition, that secret voting was not compulsory, and that Socialist Party personnel at the polls refused to give voting cards to opposition supporters.
Mr. Seck also claimed that the Senegalese Democratic Party has proof that Wade won 56 percent of the vote.
``The results were fabricated by the ministry of the interior,'' Seck said.
``... Mr. Wade was thrown in jail to prevent him from challenging the results'' during the legally prescribed two days after they have been confirmed by the supreme court.
The Socialists say opposition claims are just sour grapes.
The government's results show Wade with only 25 percent of the vote.
``The whole country is for us,'' said Socialist deputy Bara Diouf.
Mr. Diouf, who is not related to President Diouf, complained that during the campaign the opposition attacked the government for economic troubles that the ruling party cannot control.
Senegal is currently under an austerity plan designed by the International Monetary Fund that many Senegalese feel has contributed to the high unemployment rate, especially among the young.
Opposition leaders say they recognize the need for adjustment, but the people are suffering while corruption and patronage in the Socialist Party machine eat up public resources.
``When you have only one party ruling for a quarter of a century, it is sure that people will be corrupted,'' said an independent journalist.
Opposition attacks also focused on the price of rice and other staples. The President frequently refers to opposition claims that they would drastically cut food prices as unrealistic ``demagoguery.''
The young men and boys who burned government vehicles and smashed telephone booths during the opening day of the trial are often less specific in their demands. They call only for ``sopi [change], whatever the consequences.''
``They don't want Diouf,'' said Mr. Savane. ``It's not that they want Wade particularly. But the outcome of the Wade trial could well influence the course of events. ...''
The threat of further street demonstrations by opposition supporters may bring negotiations that could conceivably strengthen Senegal's democracy.
Several sources say such talks between Wade and the government are under way, but report no progress.
It is likely that the opposition will demand at a minimum a large-scale reform of the election law. Wade would like another election.
Bara Diouf said the government had its own plans to revamp the electoral code within the next month or two. And two weeks ago, the President announced he would reduce the price of rice, cooking oil, and sugar - a concession seen as intended to appease urban consumers.
``I don't see how the cycle of violence can end without serious political changes in the country,'' Savane said.
But, said Seck,``I don't think anyone has an interest in seeing democracy fail.''