By Conor Godfrey
[The daily song: I am going to talk about Senegal, so today the musical shout out goes to Senegal’s virtuoso ( and almost presidential candidate)….Mr. Youssu N’Dour. Here are some free streaming songs/videos from his fan site.]
I believe that political evolution takes generations.
The media cycles in the United States magnify off-hand, irrelevant political utterances and give the impression of a political roller coaster when the real ride is, in fact, considerably smoother and longer.
The increasingly powerful office of the U.S presidency, the role of the U.S. judiciary, party platforms—these things change at the margins relatively frequently, but those small alterations accumulate into major developments over the course of a generation, not one election cycle.
The Arab Spring might seem like a spontaneous combustion—near instant change—but the political culture that provided fertile ground for the sparks of the Arab spring was in the works for decades.
It was the generational divide in Arab countries, the slow but accelerating growth of political Islam, increasing social inequality and other longer term trends that drove the evolution of political culture across the Arab world.
One street protest or one election is just a blip unless political culture has opened up space for the event to reverberate. (There are interesting points to be made here about the role of technology in accelerating political evolution.)
Senegal offers a powerful case study in the slow, steady evolution of political culture. I am more interested by the meta-story and will not get lost in the weeds of the current situation here, but read these excellent articles if you are interested in details of the current exciting election:
Towards a Second Round in Senegal
Senegal’s famous founding politician poet– Leopold Senghor—governed for twenty years before leaving office voluntarily.
Then there was what I will call an “electoral phase;” Senghor’s successor (Abdou Diouf) won mildly rigged elections every five or six years for two decades.
The entire patronage network that kept leaders in power was in Mr. Diouf’s hands. He did not have to resort to massive bribing or brutality to win elections.
Decision makers understood that he controlled access to the trough. However, at that time, a number of other things were changing in Senegal’s political culture.
The people that made their names during the independence period were slowly fading from the scene. Along those same lines, Senegal was getting much younger.
These younger people adopted new technologies and ideas faster than their parents and grandparents.
When 2000 rolled around, technology advances had made vote counting more fair and efficient, and young people were looking for someone to reflect the changes they saw in society.
The patronage networks behind the incumbent (Abdou Diouf) had also seen this writing on the wall and had begun to hedge their bets.
Enter the current president- Abdoulaye Wade- who won in the second round of that 2000 election.
Abdoulaye Wade is now the victim of these same long term trends.
One of his key legal maneuvers to rig the election in his favor (lowering the threshold to win outright in the first round) was blocked by civil society in the form of pressure on politicians from young Senegalese that probably got their first taste of electoral power when they voted in Wade in 2000!
Now the youth on the street are cheering “Degage!” – or “clear out!”
The electoral system has seeped into Senegal’s political culture over the past forty years.
That same culture has, in fits and starts, tolerated a loyal opposition, and adopted the technologies and legal methods necessary to enforce an electoral framework.
This is obviously simplifying generations of political developments in a complex country, but my point is this…
Senegal represents a realistic pace of political evolution.
No matter how the current election turns out, it is obvious that the country’s long term trajectory is headed toward more inclusion and more transparency.
If this election goes poorly, or the military over-reacts and makes mistakes in Casamance, those are likely just blips.
In the same way that one election in Libya or Afghanistan does not mean much at all, even if CNN and Al-Jazeera trip over themselves to see how many synonyms for important and game-changing and critical they can use in one broadcast.