Why are there so many political parties in Senegal?

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In the latest in our popular Book Club feature, Catherine Lena Kelly shares the key lessons of her new book Party Proliferation and Political Contestation in Africa: Senegal in Comparative Perspective, which provides essential insights into one of Africa’s most competitive political systems and the role of political parties more generally.

A common refrain of social scientists is that political parties are critical for making democracy work.  While multiparty politics is indeed essential for citizens to express preferences about who governs them, an overabundance of parties can dilute the power of the opposition, render vote choices opaque, and erode popular confidence in parties as vehicles of interest articulation and accountability.  Thus, the proliferation of registered political parties – both in Senegal and elsewhere in Africa – is important to understand.

My book, Party Proliferation and Political Contestation in Africa: Senegal in Comparative Perspective, examines the origins and consequences of the proliferation of parties, a trend that persists across the continent but took hold after many countries transitioned to multiparty politics in the 1990s.  Around the time of founding multiparty elections, we would expect to see a spike in party formation as people respond to new political opportunities.  However, we would also expect party leaders who were unsuccessful in the founding elections to learn from their mistakes, either abandoning their organizations or fusing them with other, more successful parties in subsequent rounds of competition.

Yet even after the initial elections of Africa’s “democratic experiments,” the number of registered parties has multiplied in a variety of countries.  By 2010, Cameroon had over 250 parties, Madagascar and Senegal over 150, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Mali over 100, and Mozambique, Malawi, and Kenya approximately 50.  By mid-2018, these numbers had climbed even higher, especially in francophone Africa.

This pattern is especially striking in Senegal (which now has 300 parties).  It held its first multiparty presidential elections in 1978, over a decade earlier than most other African countries.  Theoretically, Senegal’s longer experience with multiparty politics makes it the place where one might least expect party proliferation to persist.  Yet, by mid-2011, Senegal had 174 registered political parties, a number that had tripled over the previous decade.

Why do so many politicians continue to found parties in Senegal, and why do others choose not to create them?  What are the implications of proliferation for party trajectories, presidential turnover, and party loyalty?  Party Proliferation answers these questions with original data constructed from interviews and archival research.

First, party formation was often primarily a means of patronage negotiation and was not particularly election-oriented.  Since 1981, the legal barriers to forming parties have been low.  However, it was not until the mid to late 1990s – when the ruling Socialist Party’s hold on power weakened  – that Senegal saw a spike in registered parties that were not particularly election-oriented or ideological.  Since late in the Diouf presidency (1981-2000), throughout the Wade presidency (2000-2012), and now under Macky Sall’s leadership, various parties have contested elections and attempted to forge stable constituencies among voters, but party creation has more consistently been an expedient way to access state resources than to regularly contest elections.

For instance, in 2011, only 43 of the 174 registered parties had run on their own labels in presidential or parliamentary elections, and 15 had done so just once.  While just 55 had controlled a mayoral-level position, at least 79 had joined the Coalition around the President in the Twenty-First Century, a club that President Wade created to distribute rice and small salaries to party leaders willing to support the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS), which controlled a legislative supermajority by itself.  Thanks to Wade’s incentives through the Cap 21, “telephone booth parties” abounded, including some with leaders who had left larger opposition parties in which they were unhappy about their pace or extent of advancement.

Second, although Senegal is known for its electoral democracy and numerous vibrant opposition parties, trajectories of consistent opposition throughout the Wade presidency were rare.  Instead, party leaders were often constrained to forging tactical alliances with the president or to accepting more permanent co-optation into the ruling coalition, even when they did not need to join the ruling coalition to form a government or a legislative majority.  Largely dependent on personal resources for party-building on the uneven playing field in Senegal under Wade, party leaders rarely had prior experience as high-level state administrators or international sources of private financing, the two resource endowments that facilitated consistent opposition.  Party leaders with both are best able to resist the opportunities for government collaboration that presidents offer to some politicians in order to fragment the opposition.  Party leaders with high concentrations of one but not both endowments are more likely to forge short-term, bilateral “tactical alliances” with the ruling party, while those with little to none of both resources tend towards longer-term forms of co-optation into the ruling entourage.

Third, in this context, ex-regime insiders are often the most threatening challengers to incumbent presidents in Senegal’s elections. [1]  Indeed, former government collaborators, rather than the committed outsiders conventionally thought of as the opposition, are often the ones who defeat sitting heads of state.  Under both Diouf and Wade, politicians who joined the ruling coalition as ministers before challenging them had opportunities to access state resources that (in some cases) helped them outperform outsider candidates.  This was the case for the current president, Macky Sall, who had been a prominent PDS elite until 2008.  He broke away, formed the Alliance for the Republic (APR), and won the presidency just four years later.  Sall’s meteoric rise with the APR is just the latest example that is likely to motivate other politicians to hitch their wagons to new stars of their own making.

African academics, politicians, and pundits have been discussing party proliferation and its potential dangers for over a decade.  Party Proliferation highlights the notice that this pattern has gained in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gabon, Mali, and the International Organization of La Francophonie.  At least in the Senegalese case, policy reforms aimed at helping citizens trust in parties to facilitate good governance will need to reduce the dizzying array of parties vying for attention inside and outside of elections, yet do so without raising concerns that the ruling party is using the reform process to its own advantage.  Some would argue that the 2018 Sponsorship Law (loi de parrainage) did the former, but not the latter.


Dr. Catherine Lena Kelly is an Assistant Professor of Justice and Rule of Law at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (@AfricaACSS). 

Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the Department of Defense, or any other agency of the Federal Government.  Parts of this post come from her book, published with Palgrave Macmillan (2019). 


[1] They also would have been in 2019, had the Sall regime not found legal ways to exclude Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade from competing.

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