What Israel can learn from elections in Senegal

As much as we often like to think of ourselves as part of the West, we continue to share a lot with many emerging economies – even with Africa’s most western country.

YOUNG SENEGALESE welcome US President Barack Obama to a school in Senegal in 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
YOUNG SENEGALESE welcome US President Barack Obama to a school in Senegal in 2013
(photo credit: REUTERS)
We love to compare ourselves to high-income countries in the West. Of course we are part of the Eurovision, although we are based in the Middle East. Decisions taken in Jerusalem carry a similar significance to those taken in Brussels or Washington. Our ever-rising high-tech market mirrors Silicon Valley, and Tel Aviv and Haifa are just like Berlin or Amsterdam with flip-flops.
As much as we often like to think of ourselves as part of the West, we continue to share a lot with many emerging economies – even with Africa’s most western country – at least in the geographical sense: Senegal.
Senegal’s multiethnic and multicultural society is as copious and complex as Israel’s. With a flexible and creative approach to daily problems or to religion, with its warm climate, rich musical, artistic, and culinary scenes, booming demography, a large and engaged diaspora, and an often-exaggerated self-regard in a region plagued with problems – Israel and Senegal have some unexpected yet striking similarities.
While we often contrast our politics with those in the US or EU, five weeks ahead of general elections in Israel, it would be useful to humbly take some lessons from Senegal, where presidential elections were held last week.
Much like Israel’s parliamentary democracy is borrowed from former British rule during the period of Mandatory Palestine, the Senegalese presidential system has been inherited from its former French colonizers.
Unlike the brutal colonization of Algeria that began with the wholesale deprivation of liberty and ended after a violent war for independence, French rule over Senegal began with a promise of equality (with full naturalization of residents in four cities) and ended on relatively peaceful terms that continue to this day.
However, under President Macky Sall, who has just been reelected with 58% of the vote, some are afraid that Senegalese-French relations are becoming too warm. From service providers and food retailers like Orange, Auchan and Casino, to Eiffage-run infrastructure projects – the French hold over the economy is deep, especially with regards to France’s control over West Africa’s currency.
With high levels of unemployment, young urban Senegalese are especially concerned that the economy is rigged against them and that international forces (including China) have too much control over their future.
Poverty, literacy and tertiary education levels, and the quality of social services in both countries are clearly very different. Nevertheless, their recent pasts are similar. In the past 20 years Israel’s GDP has tripled and Senegal’s has quadrupled.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Abdoulaye Wade have overturned a decades old welfare system with a set of reforms that boosted their countries’ performance in certain metrics. But as far as inequality, poverty rates, and job security are concerned, the neo-liberalization project had left major parts in both societies behind.
In Israel, although social safety nets became so frail that even the central Bank of Israel is calling for a drastic investment in education, health, and other essential public services, or while pension funds have been privatized to foreign investments and foreign companies who manage natural resources, the economy is sorely absent from the public debate ahead of the elections on April 9.
In Senegal, however, where the average age of the population is only 19, the country’s economy has shaped the public debate.
Ousmane Sonko, the youngest and most promising candidate to win the next elections, reverberated a message for more inclusive growth in the campaign: “we have the potential, but our wealth is sold off to multinationals that are already extremely rich and whose home countries are also rich.”
Is it only a matter of time until Israel faces an economic crisis, which would put an “Israel first” policy more central in politics; following the protectionist and separatist economic trends and calls for renegotiating trade deals that we already see with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the US, Corbyn and Farage in the UK, or most recently with Sonko in Senegal?
ADDRESSING ISRAEL’S SOCIETY, President Reuven Rivlin speaks of a country made up of four demographically equal yet hostile “tribes” – secular-traditional, Modern Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox,  and Arabs – who must to learn to work together.
 I would suggest to President Rivlin to drop by Senegal and learn how a highly diverse society can work together. In a country rich in ethnic groups, languages, and religious fraternities, both daily life and political life are steadily and reliably peaceful.
None of the five candidates for president led the sort of campaign like the one we are now seeing in Israel, such as using racism against minorities and immigrants. Unlike Israel, no one in Senegal’s election was labeled a “traitor” or a “fascist.”
In fact, while Israeli politicians often focus on fights with the media, the judiciary, academia, the army, or civil society organizations, all of Senegal’s candidates in the presidential elections have presented highly detailed programs. In Israel, a little over a month left to the elections, the notion of a party program seems to have become almost entirely obsolete. Are we really served well by the vacuous debate over who is loyal and who isn’t?
While Senegal demonstrates a far more tolerant and rational way of conducting politics in a multicultural society, it still faces some of the difficulties that we know in Israel. The politics of identities and ethnic alliances for power-sharing remain a feature in the two countries.
While ethnically or religiously based parties like Shas, United Torah Judaism, Bayit Yehudi and the Arab parties are constitutionally not allowed to run in Senegal, ethnic belonging does play a decisive role in the ballot. Candidates Idrissa Seck and Sonko won a majority in their respective hometown of Thiès and the southern Casamance area, while the winning president Sall won the votes of his parents’ Fula people. Such trends are also common in Israeli politics. This is a dangerous deviation from how democracy should work, following a debate on policies, values, and interests – instead of simply adhering to different ethnic and religious affiliations in society.
Israeli democracy certainly has much to be proud of. A robust and independent judiciary and party system, enforced transparency guidelines, and a parliament that isn’t disassembled and reassembled until it meets the president’s wishes – most Senegalese would envy Israeli democracy.
They would particularly appreciate the ability to challenge the country’s leader, after Dakar’s popular mayor – a key contender – was barred from running against the incumbent Macky Sall, in what was broadly interpreted as a politically motivated decision of the court.
Nevertheless, like the Senegalese – we can also demand that our politicians present more comprehensive answers on the economic challenges ahead and stick to policies instead of vacuous incitement and division. Most importantly, there is no strict linear hierarchy between nations. Indeed, we have a lot to learn from Senegalese society and politics, as we would from other lower income countries.
Tal Harris is PhD candidate in the field of sociology on urban migration discourse, policy, and practice at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.