Published June 12, 2020
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.