DAKAR -- Senegal is inaugurating a new parliament Monday with a coalition led by the president's party holding a large majority.
The day's mantra among citizens and new lawmakers is “a break from the past” -- a past in which parliament was seen as serving the political elite rather than the people.
The new national assembly takes office about four months into the administration of President Macky Sall, who came to office vowing greater decentralization of power. Last week, President Sall, whose Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition won 119 of 150 seats in an election earlier this month, said the Senegalese people's demands for better governance will require a "rigorous" parliament and effective collaboration between lawmakers and the executive.
The incoming assembly is the first since Senegal adopted a gender parity law designed to boost the number of female legislative candidates. Of its 150 elected representatives, 65 are women -- nearly twice the number of the outgoing parliament.
Civil society members say women tend to be well in tuned to their communities’ needs and their presence is expected to improve the parliament’s responsiveness to the people.
The newly elected lawmakers will serve five-year terms in parliament.
West African nations were relieved earlier this year when Senegal -- which has never seen a coup and is known for the relatively sound functioning of its democratic institutions -- got past a tumultuous election and completed another peaceful transition of power.
While the country's political stability is to be lauded, researchers with OSIWA
, both of which are funded by Open Society Foundations, say electoral and constitutional reforms are urgently needed to safeguard stability and improve citizen participation.
While the national assembly has three main functions -- to represent the people, to pass laws, and to provide oversight of the administration -- researchers say previous legislators have fallen short.
Under the current electoral system, say researchers of one Open Society report, lawmakers represent their parties more than their communities, and parliament, historically, has not proven a real check on executive power.
One reason for that, says the report’s author, law professor Ismaïla Madior Fall, is the way lawmakers are elected.
"Citizens vote for lists that are drawn up by political party bosses," he said. "Candidates don’t generally emanate from the community level."
One of the report’s recommendations is that candidates be nominated by their local constituencies, not by political party leaders.
The nomination method, says Hawa Ba, Open Society Initiative’s country officer for Senegal, is one reason people tend not to sense a connection with their lawmakers. In many cases, says Ba, parties name people with means and influence to advance the interests of the party, to the detriment of a would-be representative who might be less influential politically but have a strong attachment to the electorate.
"There is a very weak link between representatives and the people they represent," she said. "One would think there would be a big turnout for the legislative polls, given that members of parliament are supposed to address the community’s demands. But the fact that only 36 percent of eligible voters came out in the July 1 legislative election indicates this is not happening."
Under the current electoral system, says the report, one party -- usually that of the president -- can too easily dominate the assembly, making it difficult to forge a viable opposition.
The report also calls for a minimum education requirement for parliamentarians. Professor Fall says more than one quarter of the outgoing national assembly was illiterate, and basic educational standards could to enhance the body’s overall competence to act as a counterweight to the executive.
Addressing voter disenfranchisement
While some Senegalese say they went to the polls out of a sense of civic duty, many say voting in the legislative election is futile.
"We’re tired of voting for people who forget about us the second they take office," said Hyacinth, a 33-year-old construction worker from Kaolack. "I have voted in the past -- I’m Senegalese and I want to fulfil my role as a citizen, but this time I just didn’t see the use."
According to Ba, although members of parliament must step up, voters also must start demanding more from their leaders, and her organization plans to hold meetings in all of Senegal’s 45 departments where lawmakers will sit and talk with the communities they represent.