Expectations and reality clash ahead of Somali elections
September 23, 2016
Parliamentary and presidential elections are kicking off in Somalia in what will be yet another attempt at forming a lasting, all-inclusive government to help the country drag itself from the abyss.
The goal of Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to have an election based on universal suffrage by 2016 was ambitious at best. Many called it naive. Indeed, at the end of last year, it became clear that ongoing disputes between himself and his prime minister, a sluggish constitutional review process and continued political bickering over representation would put an end to that noble idea.
As a consequence, universal elections were out of the question in a country widely considered a failed state with little to no state institutions and a huge security problem. An electoral process was then chartered to guarantee better political participation than in 2012 when polling was deeply flawed.
The upcoming elections will elect the 275 members of the House of the People and 58 members of the Upper House of Parliament. Given the overriding importance of clans and sub-clans in Somalia, the new federal parliament will be a mix of community and regions in accordance with an elaborate power-sharing formula between the clans.
To gradually move away from the clan-based political system, the National Leadership Forum, which includes the president, senior cabinet members and regional leaders, agreed that political parties would have to register. Then all members of parliament would need to join one party by October 2018. Any lawmaker who failed to join a party would lose his or her seat.
This year's election will select a total of 14,025 delegates. This is over a hundred times the number in 2012 but still small for a population of 11 million. In an attempt to make the vote as inclusive as possible in a conservative, male-dominated society, a 30 percent quota for women has been put in place for both the lower and upper houses of parliament. In addition to a high school certificate, each male candidate is required to pay a $5,000 registration fee. Female candidates must pay $2,500.
Professor Kenneth Menkhaus, chairman of political science at Davison College and a keen observer of Somali politics, does not think that direct elections are possible at the moment because of a general lack of security, restricted access to certain regions controlled by al-Shabab and no ratified constitution.
"All of these things are required to hold direct elections and none currently exists in the country. In that environment, indirect elections were seen as the next-best option," said Menkhaus.
Kingmakers: The Elders
Despite its shortcomings, the current voting system is a great improvement from the last round of elections four years ago, according to Abdihakim Aynte, an independent Somali political analyst.
"This time around, we have an electoral process with 50 plus individuals who come from various clans and include women, youths, academics and activists. I think that's a significant departure from the 2012 process," Aynte said.
Most of the responsibility for a proper and above all transparent election lies in the hands of the 135 influential clan elders selecting the electoral colleges.
As a result, Act for Somalia, a non-governmental Somali-British advisory group, has called on election managers to subject the elders to "thorough vetting to determine their suitability and eligibility for the role to ensure equitable and inclusive representation." Given the experience of past elections, the elders are likely to be subjected to pressure from one political group or another.
The absence of a functioning constitutional court - initially planned as part of the recent national dialogues to tackle election disputes - is seen by some as a stumbling block should results be contested.
"One needs to understand that this is not a democratic process," said analyst Aynte. "This is a very hybrid and indirect system, so there will always be some irregularities and malpractices in terms of the conduct of the process."
But according to US expert Kenneth Menkhaus, the main challenges will be the election of the president by parliament, scheduled for October 30 and the role of money in the campaign.
"In 2012, a lot of money was passed around, and we'll be watching very closely to see how that works out [this time around]," he told DW.
Voting four years ago took place exclusively in Mogadishu. But the ballot this year will take place in at least six cities nationwide. While this goes a long way toward ensuring greater transparency, it also poses great risks in terms of security. The Islamist militia al-Shabab is keen on destabilizing any democratic process in the country.
But despite the many challenges, Aynte senses that change is in the air. "Somalia is at a really critical crossroad and this election will be a defining moment in many ways. The mood is very positive and people have huge optimism in," he said.
Menkhaus is more cautious and does not believe the upcoming elections will significantly change the dynamics within Somalia.
"I am a little skeptical that even if we get fairly substantial changes in leadership, that it will make much difference in the short to medium term," Menkhaus said.
Tesfalem Waldyes Erago contributed to this article.