Senegal: is the Socialist Party set for a leadership battle?

Ousmane Tanor Dieng
Ousmane Tanor Dieng

The secretary general of Senegal’s Socialist Party, Ousmane Tanor Dieng, died in July this year. There are concerns that his death will intensify divides in the Party’s leadership. This threatens the future of a party that has shaped Senegalese politics since 1948, before independence.

Although the Socialist Party is well structured and established nationally, it’s now facing a serious test. Can it survive this test, overcome its numerous internal struggles, and reestablish itself on the Senegalese political stage?

To answer these questions, it is useful to look to both Senegal’s and the party’s history.

Historical perspectives

The origins of the Senegalese Socialist Party can be traced back to October 1948 when its founding father, Léopold Sédar Senghor, established the Senegalese Democratic Block (Bloc démocratique sénégalais). This was a break away from the French Section of the Worker’s International (Section française de l’internationale ouvrière).

The party evolved, merging with other parties to become the Popular Senegalese Block. It then became the Senegalese Progressive Union (Union progressiste sénégalaise) in 1958, before emerging as the Socialist Party in December 1976 as part of Socialist International – a worldwide organisation of social democratic, socialist and labour parties.

These changes reflected an uneasy relationship between the political leaders involved in the day-to-day operation and organisation of the Senegalese political landscape before and after the country’s independence. Leaders such as Senghor, Mamadou Dia and Lamine Gueye (who was elected along with Senghor in 1945 to represent Senegal at the French National Assembly) all had widely diverging outlooks.

The party had tremendous influence first under the leadership of the country’s first president, Senghor, and later President Abdou Diouf. Diouf, who succeeded Senghor in 1980, brought his diplomatic advisor and close ally, Ousmane Tanor Dieng into the mix. Dieng became a minister of the state and a cabinet secretary.

During the 1996 leadership convention, also known as “the convention without debate”, Tanor Dieng took over the Socialist Party, becoming its secretary general. He was catapulted to this position because of President Diouf, who wanted to step back from the party.

This presidential support garnered a mixed reception from party bigwigs. This accelerated the party’s collapse and Diouf’s eventual loss to Abdoulaye Wade in the 2000 presidential election.

Yet Tanor Dieng fought to retain leadership of the party and continue the work of Senghor and Diouf.

Successive failures

Politically, those close to Khalifa Sall (the former mayor of Dakar, now in prison, deposed by Macky Sall’s Presidential decree), accuse Ousmane Tanor Dieng of ruling the Socialist Party with an iron fist.

The lack of internal democracy exacerbated opposition and provoked harsh criticism, particularly from younger leaders. Dissenters were sidelined as the party struggled to adapt to its loss of power.

The popularity of the party’s secretary general took a blow, and the 2007 and 2012 presidential elections resulted in losses. In the first round of the 2007 election Tanor Dieng received just 13.56% of the vote, putting him in third place.

In 2012 he tried again with disappointing results, finishing in fourth place with just 11.38%. A fierce opponent of Abdoulaye Wade, Tanor Dieng decided to support Macky Sall for the second round of voting, once more sparking opposition within his own party.

Alliance

The party became a de facto member of the ruling coalition, Benno Bokk Yakaar (United in Hope). In 2014, Tanor Dieng was again made head of the Socialist Party, defeating Aissata Tall Sall, who then created her own movement, Osez l’avenir (Bank on the future).

As a reward for joining “Macky 2012”, Tanor Dieng was appointed President of the High Commission of Local Governments (Haut Conseil des collectivités territoriales). Two of his entourage were also granted government jobs: Aminata Mbengue Ndiaye (Minister of Livestock Farming, and then Minister of Fisheries) and Sérigne Mbaye Thiam (Minister of Education, and then Minister of Water and Sanitation).

This new stance widened the gulf between those who distanced themselves from the regime, in particular supporters of Khalifa Sall, and those who defended a closer relationship with the President.

Things got even worse when the Socialist Party doubled down on its decision to refrain from presenting a candidate in the presidential elections of 2019. Party leaders said the decision was due to its continuing alliance with the majority. It was against the backdrop of this internal tension that Tanor Dieng suddenly passed away.

A crucial turning point

Various statements released about Tanor’s death and succession expose the scale of conflict threatening to break out between the two camps within the Socialist Party.

For Serigne Mbaye Thiam –- a Tanor protégé and current Minister of Water and Sanitation –- the top job should unquestionably go to Aminata Mbengue Ndiaye, given her position as First Vice-Secretary General, according to the Party’s by-laws. Other party leaders disagree.

Aside from wrangles over leadership, there’s now a face-off between two movements. There are those who support the idea of maintaining ties with the majority and holding onto gains made through this alliance.

Those opposing this approach say it reduces the Socialist Party to one without an identity, simply supporting other political groups. They are convinced that the party will be able to reshape itself and regain power.

In spite of his legal troubles, Khalifa Sall is the icon of this second movement. He’s supported by other rising stars, such as mayors Barthélémy Dias and Bamba Fall, both of whom are close to him and are currently outside the party.

Ultimately, the Socialists’ main challenge will be the differences between some of its leaders. These must be put aside so that a secretary general can be chosen by consensus, following internal discussion and debate.

This will depend on the will of current leaders and “outsiders”, who have to work towards reconciliation, with the aim of reviving a political party whose adherents are still inspired by the ideas of its founding father, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and his desire for profound transformation in Senegalese society.

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast ForWord.

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