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A Big Deal: Elections in Somalia

As the world waits with bated breath for the outcome of the United States Presidential election, democracy is at work in many parts around the globe. For the first time since 1969, Somalia will hold both Parliamentary and Presidential elections. It seems like a historic step forward for one of the world’s poorest countries with a troubling political history. But the elections have been repeatedly delayed. The Presidential elections were originally scheduled for August, moved to October, and will now take place at the end of November. Parliamentary elections are now scheduled to take place from 23 October – 10 November. It begs the question: are they even happening? And if so, will they be legitimate?

For starters, the election is not one-person-one-vote. The electorate comprises 14,000 delegates who will choose the 275 members of the Lower House of Parliament. The newly formed Upper House will elect its 54 members by vote from State Assemblies. The lawmakers in turn will then elect a President, who will appoint a Prime Minister. Universal suffrage remains a goal for 2020, but that is only possible if the current election gets off the ground.

International observers have noted the election has been clouded by political manipulation. The map seems heavily tilted towards the incumbents. In July, incumbent President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud told local media that anyone opposing his re-election is the nation’s second biggest enemy, after the armed group Al-Shabab. This may seem to be political rhetoric, but opposition candidates have often faced harassment and intimidation. Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame, a candidate for President, says he is, ‘subject to all-day harassment from him, from security.’ Indeed, the United Nations released a report noting the sharp decline in freedom of expression, highlighting abuses from arbitrary detention to closure of websites and other media.

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The election might be undermined through its financing as well. Gulf countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are competing for the loyalties of political candidates. The lack of political parties and innumerable clan rivalries has allowed these countries to pick sides and fill the pockets of their favoured candidates.

The UN-backed National Leadership Forum (NLF) is responsible for choosing the 14,000 delegates who form the electorate. It includes the President, Prime Minister, four presidents of member states, and Speaker of Parliament. They all have a vested interest in the election, especially the President and Prime Minister, both of whom are running against each other for the presidency. Combined with the continuing disagreements between the Central and Regional governments over clan representations in both Houses, political jockeying is certainly responsible for the election’s repeated delays.

However, it is unfair to cast Somalia’s elections as a failure. We cannot compare Somalia’s fledgling democracy to the many developed ones around the world. This is a country that was engulfed in Civil War until 2011. It had its first peaceful transition of government in 2012. It faces an armed insurgency from Al-Shabab, which continues to terrorise the country, most recently killing a top Somali general in September. The country’s institutions are fragile, and for now, strengthening them should be the priority for international and domestic stakeholders.

Nevertheless, there remain plenty of reasons to be optimistic for this election. Compared to 2012, when only 135 ‘elders’ elected one House of Parliament, the 14,000 delegates representing the country’s myriad of clans is a big step forward. A third of the seats have to be held by women, a provision that has faced significant opposition from those who consider it to be un-Islamic. And in a step away from clan-centred politics, elected representatives have to join political parties within two years or be forced to vacate their seat. Universal suffrage, which may happen in 2020, is not an easy task. It requires electoral infrastructure, funding, adequate security, and most importantly, a culture of political participation. Somalia meets none of these requirements, as of now. A gradual, if imperfect, transition to full democracy is the only path forward for the country.

Apart from the political hurdles to a legitimate election, there remain other structural problems that threaten the future of Somalian democracy. The first is holding the election itself. Polling stations will only open in six cities, more than just the capital in 2012, but a far cry away from spreading across the length of a country. The regions where elections are being held are responsible for organising polling stations. Government structures are still not in place in many of these regions. Another challenge will be meeting a promising goal set out by the NLF: 30 per cent reservation of seats for women not only in Parliament, but in state assemblies as well. In the world’s fifth most dangerous country for women, finding women legislators will not be easy.

Al-Shabab’s armed insurgency has been a major stumbling block in spreading the arms of the new government. The security concern was one of the major reasons why the electorate is still so small; the government could not guarantee security across the country. The group has carried out nearly daily car bombings and suicide attacks, most of which have targeted the government and its officials. It is expected their attacks will only increase as voters head to the polls.

The government in Somalia is a fragile one. It did not exist for the two decades between 1991 and 2012. Its institutions, although imperfectly, are slowly being built. Its democracy is far more tenuous. The priority should be to develop institutions, and instil the practice of democracy. It is not possible to hold universal free and fair elections. The word ‘change’ is used generously in political rhetoric, but it does not happen immediately. It happens slowly, incrementally. That is why for now, the international community’s priority should be to ensure that elections to Parliament indeed take place, however imperfectly. Then we can build towards universal suffrage and other tenets of flourishing democracies. Somalia’s many, and often opposing clans all need a stake in governance. The only way possible is through democracy. It is important we preserve the little that exists, and gradually move on from there.

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