Friday, March 2, 2012

Political Debates and Dance Parties

Being in Senegal for the presidential election has been an educational experience.  I can learn a lot about a country by watching their process of electing a president.  I remember when I was studying abroad in Paris, I was there for all the presidential rallies and when Nicolas Sarkozy was elected.  You see people unite around a political candidate and hear endless conversations about politics and what’s important to people in their country.  That being said, elections in France and those in Senegal are quite different.

President Abdoulaye Wade has been in office for 2 terms, beginning his presidency in 2000.  Initially, each term was 7 years long, but there was no limit on the number of terms a president could serve.  In 2001, a new constitution was adopted that reduced the presidential term to 5 years and set a 2-term limit.  The controversy with the current election is that Wade argues that his first 7-year term as president fell under the previous constitution, which did not provide term limits.  He believes that he should be allowed to run for another 5-year term, but much of the population disagrees.  On January 27, 2012, the Constitutional Court of Senegal ruled that Wade was allowed to run for a third term and that his first term did not count under the new constitution.  In response to this ruling, there have been many violent protests in Dakar.

When I arrived in Senegal, the Safety and Security Coordinator started warning the trainees early about the impending election this year.  We were told that things could get dangerous in certain areas and that we would be kept up to date on what areas we were allowed to go to.  So far, most of the violence has been in Dakar, and I have avoided going to the capital.  In Nafadji, my safety has never been a concern for me.  The people in my village seem to view the election as both a contest to see who can get the most free stuff from the candidates as well as an excuse to throw huge dance parties when the candidate’s representatives come to the village.  For example, President Wade sent a new milling machine to my village, and many of the candidates have been handing out money to encourage a vote in their favor.

I’ve talked to my host family about the election, and even though many of them are voting for different candidates, there has been no tension in the house.  If anything, it’s just been a way to make fun of one another in jest.  When I ask why they are voting one way or another, most of my family members cannot give me much reasoning.  It appears on the outside that the villagers care about politics since they have all been wearing the free t-shirts with different candidate’s faces on them, but when you start talking with many of them, they can’t tell you anything about the candidate on their shirt.  When any candidate’s representatives have come to the village, we’ve had huge dance parties where it seemed as though everyone in the village showed up, whether or not they supported that candidate.  I attended the Macky Sall dance party, and it did not revolve much around the candidate at all.  The villagers drummed and danced for about an hour in the woods at sunset.  During the party, the representatives and the village chief sat on the side.  By the end of the party, when the Macky Sall representative was finally going to make a speech about the candidate, people slowly started draining from the party.  Women had to get home to cook dinner, and children were getting restless. 

The educated workers in my village, such as the College teachers and the nurse, have very strong opinions about the various candidates.  These are people who have attended University and are from the Dakar region.  Every night at the health post, I’d walk in on a heated political debate.  These were the times that I felt I was really learning about why people were voting for the various candidates.  Although these debates got heated, they were never violent.  It was always friends voicing their opinions to other friends. 

There was so much hype leading up to the election that I was expecting chaos and unrest, and it turned out to be very anticlimactic.  People voted at the school and the situation was unnervingly calm.  The most shocking part for me was that people stood in lines to vote!  I’ve never seen people stand in lines here, ever!  Everything was very orderly, and there were supervisors there to make sure the voting ran smoothly.  Red Cross was on standby in case any fights broke out, but they looked extremely bored.

In the first round of elections Abdoulaye Wade got 34.8% and Macky Sall got 26.5%.  A second round of elections will be held on March 18th as a runoff between Wade and Sall.  Hopefully the second round goes as calmly as the first round!
Macky Sall Dance Party
Dance Party!

1 comment:

  1. How great that you got to experience the entire campaign and election process. It's so interesting to get such a different perspective. Sure sounds a lot more entertaining than our process! Regarding Wade, the biggest negatives that I've read are that he's too old and of course breaking his own law concerning term limits. Other than that, he's supposedly done a lot of good for Senegal. So I guess it won't be so terrible that he sticks around.