Even as Somalia prepares for an election later this year or early 2021, Somalis do not know which path to take: hold a one person, one vote or maintain the status quo where clan elders select members of parliament, each with its own risks.
The source of this confusion is lack of preparedness by the federal government and other actors. The government has just eight months in office, and has little time to prepare for any form of election. The president is scheduled to leave office by February 8 2021, but he will stay on for at least six months: no timeline has been set for the election, whether a direct election or clan-based one, and because of Covid-19, it may take longer to prepare for an election.
On June 6, during a ‘state of the nation’ address in parliament, Farmajo promised Somalis a direct election, where they will be choosing their political representatives directly. Farmajo wants to gamble and subject the country to universal suffrage — Somalia has not fulfilled key conditions to hold this kind of election. Some doubt whether a direct election can happen.
Others, like some in the opposition, fear the introduction of universal suffrage may make them lose power, which they enjoy now because of a clan power-sharing formula.
Somali clans share power through a system known as 4.5, where the main four clans share political power equally, and the minority ones share the remaining 0.5. Although major clans are satisfied with the application of this system, smaller ones feel that it does discriminate against them.
Although the president signed an election bill into law, paving way for the country to hold its first ever popular election in half a century, and which political parties can compete for power, holding a free, fair and credible one person, one vote election is not only difficult but also impossible because of the facts on the ground.
Organising such an election within the remaining eight months of the current parliament is unfeasible, but the president insists the direct direction will help Somalis pick their leaders democratically.
For a credible one person, one vote to take place, parliament has to pass election and political parties laws, the constitutional review process must be completed, voters must be registered, a constitutional court to handle electoral dispute should be set up, the federal government and federal member states must reach a political agreement, and most importantly, security must be improved. Most of these are not in place right now.
Democratic elections require a peaceful environment. Al Shabab remains a threat to Somalia’s democratisation process. Some parts of Somalia are still under al Shabab control, and people living there cannot participate in an election. The al Qaeda-linked group, without doubt, will try to disrupt any form of an election the country pursues, but a direct poll is very risky. Civilians in urban areas where the government and the African Union forces control may fear to take part because of al Shabab threats that it will target polling centres and anyone who participates in the election.
Until today, al Shabab continues to target clan elders who participated in the 2016 elections, killing dozens of them. The government should focus more on defeating al Shabab and securing the country, redirecting most attention and resources to this cause., while not forgetting its other responsibilities.
The opposition accuses the government of trying to extend its term in office to ‘buy time to organise an election’ which will be a reputational risk for Somali’s statehood, and it could plunge the country back into crisis, jeopardizing gains made in the last few years.
If Somalia chooses to go for universal suffrage, it needs at least two years, from now, to prepare. This is why the opposition parties have expressed concern about a poll delay. They want an election right now, no matter what — whether the country holds direct polls or clan elders continue to do the selection, whether there is Covid-19 or not, and whether all conditions are fulfilled. They oppose the direct election because it will take time to take place.
In the absence of a universal suffrage election, the 4.5 model, which is currently in place, offers by far the most predictable path towards inclusivity in Somalia’s fragile post-conflict society.
Until an enabling environment for a credible election is created, and an alternative election model, agreeable to all Somalis, is placed on the table, the clan system remains the stability factor for the country.
What happens in Dhusamareeb doesn’t stay in Dhusamareeb
The political crisis in Somalia continues despite leaders of the federal government, federal member states and the mayor of Mogadishu reaching an electoral agreement in the central city of Dhusamareeb. Two of Somalia’s five federal member states are opposing the deal.
On Thursday, 20th August, President Mohamed Farmajo and the leaders of Galmudug, Hirshabelle and South West states and the mayor of Mogadishu, agreed on an election deal that that will take place on schedule, and a little bit different from the last election of 2016.
According to the deal, a constituency caucus of 301 delegates will elect a member of parliament, political parties compete for seats which will be presided over the National Independent Electoral Commission. State assemblies will elect the Senate (Upper House).
The drama surrounding Somalia’s election is being watched by local as well as outside players with keen interest in the country’s ability to hold free and credible polls.
The leaders of Jubbaland and Puntland who did not attend the latest round of talks rejected the outcome of the summit. They said the agreement reached in Dhusamareeb is a ‘political position limited to the views of leaders who attended that conference and we are not part of the conference and had no any representatives in the summit.’
“Ahmed Madobe and Said Deni, the leaders of Jubbaland and Puntland, could have attended the conference and present their views. No one could force them to agree with the other leaders,” Afyare Elmi, associated professor of security studies, Qatar University told the BBC.
“Other stakeholders, such as the national opposition and the civil society groups, could also have been invited to the conference to herald a broader political consensus,” he said.
Although with conditions, the Forum for National Parties – a coalition of opposition parties led by former presidents Sharif Ahmed and Hassan Mohamud – welcomed the agreement, saying that it is a step taken to the right direction moving the country closer to holding inclusive and timely election.
The agreement reached in Dhusamareeb is not binding; its implementation depends on the approval by the House of the People. President Farmajo, while addressing the Lower House before departing to Dhusamareeb last week, told members any electoral deal would be brought before the House for debate and approval.
According to the Provisional Federal Constitution, parliament must be elected through universal direct suffrage, thus the need for parliament to approve or reject the Dhusamareeb agreement.
There is concern about real political instability brewing between Jubbaland Puntland on one hand and the federal government on the other due to the strongly held divergent views among leaders and high political tensions in this pre-electoral period.
Farmajo has conceded much in Dhusamareeb. He has offered to sacrifice one of his legacies – leading the country to a one person, one vote. By abandoning a direct election which he advocated for to end a stalemate, he has angered many of his supporters who are overwhelmingly in favour of universal suffrage.
Somalis, in general, would probably be delighted to participate in an election they can participate in, but would want the next election, whether universal suffrage or indirect, held in a fair and credible manner, free from corruption as witnessed in 2016.
One person, one vote in Somalia will devolve political power and money away from Mogadishu
Somalia’s elections have been the subject of much fanfare. A debate on what election model the country should have is gaining momentum and is dividing the country along regional and clan lines.
There are two models on the table; a direct election where the Somali people will elect their political representatives in parliament, and the clan system – where the status quo remains and clan elders continue to pick parliamentarians on ‘behalf of the people.’
Whichever model the country chooses, elections cannot happen on schedule due to technical delays and political wrangles.
Proponents of both models have convincing reasons to reject the other model. However, the direct elections will solve some of the contentious issues causing political wrangles. It will devolve political power and money away from Mogadishu, create employment and expand the political field giving an opportunity to every willing Somali to participate in the political process – a constitutional right. There are a lot of people who feel they are deeply marginalized by clan-based elections. Youth, women and minority communities will gain big – if they play smart. Clans will not hold them back.
A parliament elected by the people will work for the people, not clans, and federate the country properly and legislative Somalia’s future.
In the 2016 selection of parliament, there have been massive corruption and voter intimidation. Candidates paid bribes of between $2000 and $10,000 to secure seats. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent in that election – almost all of it remaining in Mogadishu, Mogadishu, and into few people’s pockets. With universal suffrage, these monies and more will be spent outside Mogadishu, in other cities and towns and villages.
Candidates and political parties need to reach the people to get their votes, forcing them to spend big money, as campaigns are expensive. This will help grow local economies, and may account for a stimulus. Candidates running for office and political parties will be spending on polling, political communications, lobbying, advertising and public relations.
The struggling think-tanks, political consulting, communications and public relations firms will get contracts to run campaigns for candidates, and with increased revenue, they will add more jobs. The advertising industry will also help in job growth.
The big winners from campaign advertisement brought about by a direct election are radio and television stations. There are proliferation of media outlets, radio playing the dominant role mainly because of the strength of the oral culture in the country and because the medium is relatively inexpensive. There are between 50 and 60 radio stations, although not all are reliable, professionally-run stations, with no factional links, have emerged in recent years. The bulk of advertising budget will go to radio.
A large number of young Somalis are leaving the country to find work abroad, a system in which they helped create will encourage them to contribute to Somalia’s growth by working in their own country.
Although the role of an election is not to create jobs, it will help young people to participate in a democratic process. And this comes with an opportunity.
Which way for Somalia, universal suffrage or status quo? No one knows.
Somali political leaders have been meeting in the central city of Dhusamareeb in the last few days to resolve their differences and steer the country in the right direction.
The key agenda of the summit between the federal government and its member states was the issue of the 2020/21 election: whether to hold a direct election where Somalis would pick their representatives by themselves or whether to retain the status quo where elders pick lawmakers and clans share political power.
Although no solution was reached, the leaders agreed to form a joint technical team to work towards finding the best electoral model for the country.
In February this year, President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo signed an electoral bill into law, paving way for a one person, one vote for the first time in 50 years.
Parliamentary and presidential elections were scheduled to take place late 2020 and early 2021 respectively, but the electoral commission said a direct election is not feasible and can only take happen one year from now.
Halima Ismail Ibrahim, the electoral body chairperson, said her commission needs at least 13 months to prepare for free, fair, and credible elections.
The 2020-2021 elections have been the subject of much fanfare. President Farmajo promised a one person, one vote during his ‘state of the nation’ address in June.
No one knows which electoral path Somalia will take. Those in favour of indirect polls and want the status quo to remain argue that for a credible one person, one vote to take place, parliament has to pass election and political parties laws, the constitutional review process must be completed, voters must be registered, a constitutional court to handle electoral dispute should be set up, the federal government and federal member states must reach a political agreement, and most importantly, security must be improved. They say most of these are not in place right now.
Holding a universal suffrage election needs a two-year preparation. The electoral commission needs 24 months to plan for a credible poll, if preparations start today. The opposition feel the government is not sincere in its call for a direct election and is only meant for an avenue to extend its term in office.
“Somali President needs to face this fact that his government failed to usher in one-person-one-vote on time and the election commission reported one person, one vote cannot happen on time and within the legal mandate,” says Abdirashid Hashi, the director of Heritage Institute, a think-tank based in Mogadishu.
“Thus instead of repeating ‘we want one person, one vote’ the president should say: please I need an extension.”
Proponents of universal suffrage say there is already an existing law mandating electoral body to hold a one person, one vote, allowing Somalis to choose the leaders they want directly.
Al Shabab, which continues to target clan elders responsible for picking members of parliament in 2016, will manipulate the election if indirect polls do take place. Elders will be forced to pick al Shabab-designated candidates or they will have to abandon their role of selecting candidates.
“By assassinating a number of traditional elders and delegates who participated in the last federal and state elections and “pardoning” those who would “repent,” al Shabab made it abundantly clear that they will be monitoring and directing all selections in Somalia in the future – with swaying the national elections as their top prize,” says Adam Aw Hirsi, a Somalia policy analyst and former Minister of Planning of Jubbaland state.
“Take the possibility of elders selecting MPs or delegates off the table as that might translate into an al Shabab parliament and government in 2021,” he says.
Even as Somalis debate which electoral model to take, it is still unclear whether any form of election can happen on time.
If proponents of indirect elections have their way, still there will be delays. The current law requires the use of technology in elections, thus the need for parliamentary amendment which will take time. Parliament will also need to undo the electoral laws it passed and the president needs to sign that. How long can this take?
“Indirect elections themselves cannot happen on time in Somalia as things stand. The reason is that indirect elections will require a completely different mechanism as NIEC (National Independent Electoral Commission) is not mandated to manage them,” Aw Hirsi told the BBC.
Whether Somalis go for a direct election or whether they go for an indirect one, delay is inevitable.
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