Vote In Senegal Threatens Democratic Reputation

Senegalese vote Sunday to elect their next president. It follows weeks of violent protests over incumbent President Aboulaye Wade's effort to seek a third term. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about the latest developments.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. In West Africa, the people of Senegal are voting for their new president today after days of violent street protests. The sitting president, 85-year-old Abdoulaye Wade, has been in power for 12 years, and he is seeking a third term in office. His opposition rivals say that's illegal, and they insist the president must go now.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in the capital, Dakar. She joins us now outside of the president's polling station. Ofeibea, considering all of the violence in recent weeks, are there many people turning out to the polls?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Oh, yes, yes. It's a little noisy here because I'm here where the president votes, and there are lots of people here to vote - and I think lots of people here, also, to welcome the person they consider their candidate. So yes, despite all the violence, despite what has gone on here in the past two weeks, the Senegalese are out voting.

MARTIN: But as we mentioned, there is a fervent opposition building against the sitting president. There was also a mediation effort between the opposition and President Wade. Has that worked?

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. Former Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo is the one who's been dispatched by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, the regional bloc. He's come here as the chief election observer, but also to try and find some balance between the opposition and President Wade.

Wade says if he is re-elected - and he says he'll be re-elected in this first round - that what he proposes is staying on for three years. What former President Obasanjo is saying that if Wade should win the election in the first round, he should stay on for two years and then new elections should be held.

Now, the opposition, I think, is a little divided here. Some have said no, it should be no longer than nine months; and some are saying absolutely not; he's got to go. His bid for a third term is anti-constitutional; that he is violating the letter and the spirit of the constitution, especially.

MARTIN: Ofeibea, when Wade was elected over a decade ago, I understand he had a good reputation. He was known for taking on corruption. There was a peaceful transfer of power. What happened?

QUIST-ARCTON: When President Wade came to power in 2000 - and it was on a wave of popular support, especially amongst youths - what the analysts say is that he continued this glowing reputation of Senegal as a bastion of democracy and stability in West Africa; but that in his second term, he had suddenly decided that he wants to cling to power, and that it's a different Wade.

Although he has achieved some things, like building infrastructure and roads, and so on, there is huge criticism that he's trying to impose his son, Karim Wade, who is a mega-minister in his father's government, as his successor as president. This is what the Senegalese are saying absolutely no to. And it's not just the politicians. It's ordinary Senegalese who say, no, we will choose our new president. It's not up to you, President Wade, to choose.

And also they're saying, how come the people around you are enriching themselves? That is not what we elected you for. We elected you to ensure a better life for all Senegalese, jobs and opportunities, and that is not what has happened.

MARTIN: Lastly, you talk about Senegal is a bastion of democracy. It's one of the oldest democracies in Africa. What does this highly contested campaign mean for the country?

QUIST-ARCTON: I think it has surprised the Senegalese. This is a stable and generally peaceful nation, but I think Senegalese were surprised to see themselves on the streets. And the fury in their faces - especially amongst the youth, who were hurling rocks at the riot police. They say, we have had enough of Wade. Twelve years ago, he symbolized change and a better future for Senegal. That is not what has happened. It's time to choose someone else.

MARTIN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, speaking with us from Dakar, Senegal. Thanks so much, Ofeibea.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you.

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