With its reputation for fair elections and peaceful transitions of power, Senegal is often hailed as model democracy in West Africa. Senegalese are scheduled to vote in less than a month to elect a new president. But on Saturday, police cracked down on a major political march by the opposition, and now there are concerns that the country's democratic reputation is being tarnished. For VOA, Jordan Davis reports from Dakar.
Political marches in Senegal are relatively common. Most are uneventful. But a mass march organized by opposition parties Saturday in Dakar was a different story. Authorities initially banned it, citing public safety. But opposition leaders decided to hold the demonstration anyway, and the authorities responded.
Police in riot gear fired tear gas canisters, and hit demonstrators with batons. Authorities dragged away and briefly detained opposition leaders, many of them candidates who plan to run against President Abdoulaye Wade next month.
A witness to the police crackdown, human rights observer Sidiki Kaba, said he was sad for the state of Senegal's democracy.
Kaba, who is with the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, said the country has made a lot of progress, but now appears to be slipping backward.
When Mr. Wade was elected president in 2000, those elections were viewed as a symbol of the advances democracy had made in Senegal.
The ruling socialists conceded defeat and handed over power to Mr. Wade and the liberal PDS party -- a peaceful transition rarely seen in the region. The international community congratulated Senegal for its commitment to the rule of law.
But that commitment to the rule of law is less clear, opposition groups say, as the 80-year-old Mr. Wade is set to face the voters in a month.
In fact, Saturday's opposition march was originally called to protest the repeated postponement of legislative elections.
They were first canceled in 2005, when Mr. Wade said the country could not afford them in the wake of massive flooding.
Then, several weeks ago, the parliamentary vote set to coincide with the upcoming presidential elections was delayed yet again when the country's high court ruled that the electoral map drawn up by the ruling party was biased.
Moussa Taye, with the Socialist Party, says many worry Mr. Wade does not want to hold elections because the economy is not good and that may cost him votes.
"Democracy means elections," he said. "But when the elections are postponed, sometimes we are afraid that the elections will be canceled."
In response to growing rumors in newspapers that the government wants to delay the presidential vote, the ruling PDS party told reporters it fully supports the February 25 vote going forward as scheduled.
The ruling party has been criticized for changing rules to benefit Mr. Wade. It pushed through parliament a measure dropping the requirement that turnout be above 50 percent for a winning presidential candidate to avoid going to a runoff.
That change was made just a few months before scheduled presidential elections, despite a good-governance agreement among the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, not to change election rules six months before a poll.
Moussa Taye said, "Abdoulaye Wade who is a member of ECOWAS and who tries to organize peace and another constitution in Guinea and other parts of Africa, in his own country cannot organize clear elections."
Kissy Agyeman, an analyst with London-based Global Insight, says, the atmosphere ahead of elections next month is somewhat troubling.
But, she says, it is not too late for Senegal to save its democratic reputation.
"I think that if the elections do come off at the slated time, the 25th of February, then Senegal can hold on to this idea that it is a democratic nation. But I think it is going to be a little blighted by the fact that the legislatives [legislative elections] have been postponed," she said.
Ultimately, says Agyeman, damage to Senegal's international reputation probably will not be too serious. The country is popular with international donors largely because it is considered a bastion of stability in a troubled region.
She said, "Countries such as Guinea, Cote D'Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia. They all have much more pressing problems."
"So I think it is quite possible that the elections could go, not unnoticed, I wouldn't say that, but it will not get the same kind of attention. Because there is this sort of preconceived idea that Senegal will be fine," Agyeman added.