Somalia’s elections: A small, stumbling step on the road to democracy
Posted on October 5, 2016 by Abdihakim Ainte    
Somalia’s (s)election may have become a site for competing elites
rather than competing visions. But the importance of the imperfect
process should not be underestimated.
Eid celebrations in Mogadishu, Somalia. Credit: AU UN IST PHOTO / TOBIN JONES.

Eid celebrations in Mogadishu, Somalia. Credit: AU UN IST PHOTO / TOBIN JONES.

If all goes according to (the latest) plan, Somalia will hold
parliamentary elections on 23 October, with the appointment of the
president set for 30 November.

Whichever way it goes, this process will mark another turning point in
the country’s long and troubled transition. If the election is deemed
to be a failure, aspects of Somalia’s fragile progress may be at risk.
If the selection is seen to go smoothly, the next question will be of
whether the country can preserve its nascent institutions over the
coming years and continue on the rocky road towards long-term
stability, democratisation and development.

After years of being synonymous with state failure, famine, piracy and
al-Shabaab, these elections provides a rare opportunity for Somalia to
send a message of hope – though several concerns remain.

Reasons to be optimistic

The upcoming elections will not be a one-person-one-vote affair. But
unlike 2012’s (s)election in which MPs were selected by just 135 clan
elders, this time around the (s)electorate will be made up of 14,025

These individuals will make up electoral colleges of 51 people each,
which will cast secret ballots to select the Lower House’s 275
parliamentarians. One third of these seats will be contested only by
women, and the distribution of the seats will reflect Somalia’s
pre-existing 4.5 formula that divides power between clans.

A new Upper House will also see 54 senators elected, who will be
nominated by regional leaders and approved by their respective
parliaments. Members of both houses of parliament will then select the
next president at the end of November.

Settling on this convoluted process was the culmination of months of
fierce political negotiations and backdoor dealings. There had been
some hope that this time around, there would be one-person-one-vote
elections. But while the final process falls far short of this, those
in diplomat circles that midwifed the model refer to it as
representing “enhanced legitimacy”. That’s to say it is an improvement
on the last time, but not universal suffrage just yet.

Indeed, the 2016 process can be seen as a quantum leap for a country
that barely has functioning institutions, has weak electoral
infrastructure, and has long lacked a culture of civic engagement or
political participation. While still highly limited, the process is a
significant advancement on 2012. Moreover, with the implementation of
a federal system underway, candidates are having to campaign from
their respective constituencies, rather than just from the capital

[Somalia is still fragile, but fragile is progress]

This election has also sparked a whole new generation – mostly from
diaspora – of Somalis aspiring to be MPs, senators or president.
Countless political newcomers – both women and men – are posting
campaign fliers and organising town-hall meetings, the kinds of
baby-steps towards democracy that Somalia hasn’t seen for decades. In
major cities like Mogadishu, Kismayo, Garoowe, Baido and Adaado,
newly-designed campaign billboards have been put up as hundreds of
volunteers and political brokers flock to these cities.

Furthermore, even though many of those running for the presidency are
the usual suspects, the field is wide-open and full of diverse
candidates from different clans and constituencies. More than 50
people have declared their candidacies, including two women.

But challenges remain

It’s very possible to be overly optimistic, however. This 2016 process
is still miles away from one-person-one-vote, it has plenty of
inherent flaws, and it has shown itself to be open to manipulation and

To begin with, the way in which the elections have been organised
gives incumbents an excessive amount of influence over what is largely
an elite-driven exercise. The electoral process was agreed by the
National Leadership Forum, a UN-backed framework whose key
participants included the President, four presidents of federal member
states, the Speaker of Parliament and Prime Minister. And because this
forum was also involved in selecting the clan delegates who will be
making the electoral decisions, many believe the process is already
heavily skewed towards these incumbents.

The often slow and argumentative process has also been beset by
disputes between competing leaders over nominations and other details
as well as allegations of corruption, gerrymandering and intimidation.
This recently led the elections to be delayed yet again, prompting the
European Union to issue a stern statement, warning: “Any further delay
would undermine the legitimacy of the institutions and the new
timeline should not provide the space for manipulation and disruption
by spoilers.” UN special representative for Somalia, Michael Keating,
commented: “The renewed delay raises a number of fears. Let me name
just two: that the process is being politically manipulated, and that
this delay may only be one of yet further ‘rolling delays’.”

Indeed, in the run-up to the votes, federal member states and the
central government in Mogadishu have continued to quarrel over clan
representation in both houses of parliament and clashed over the
control and supervision of the electoral process, further eroding
trust. Meanwhile, the formation of Hiiraan & Middle Shabelle state –
the last remaining federal member state still to be created – is
becoming another source of ongoing contestation and political

In many ways, rather than being an opportunity to present competing
visions to the Somali people, the electoral campaign has become a site
of elite contestation, especially between Prime Minister Omar
Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, both of
whom are running for the presidency and now working at cross purposes.

Adding to these worries is the fact that the credibility of the
Federal Indirect Electoral Implementation Team (FIEIT), which is
administering the elections, has been called into question by some
observers who have raised concerns that the election will lack
transparency and integrity. Delays are one thing, and acceptable
within reason, but perceptions of a rigged process would undermine its
legitimacy amongst the Somali people.

Although the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab is not the centre of
attention in these elections, its threat to disrupt the process and
attack traditional elders involved in the exercise also looms over
proceedings. Partly because it has been on the back foot of late,
al-Shabaab has re-centred its core messaging around the elections,
describing the exercise as traitorous and un-Islamic. It has stepped
up its high-profile attacks, particularly in Mogadishu, and shown its
determination to undermine the elections as much as possible.

[Al-Shabaab steps up attacks in run up to the Somalia elections]

Somalia doesn’t have a tradition of smooth transfers of power. The
last transitional election, just four years ago, was a remarkable
moment for the country as the reins of government were handed over

The current process’ many flaws and challenges are clear to see. But
as it continues its long and tortuous transition, Somalia will be
hoping the upcoming process will provide another highly imperfect but
promising step forwards – especially as the success of this
(s)election will largely determine whether the country can finally
hold one-person-one-vote elections in 2020.

Abdihakim Ainte is a political analyst and consultant. He tweets at
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One thought on “Somalia’s elections: A small, stumbling step on the
road to democracy”

    Victoria says:      
    October 7, 2016 at 8:30 am

    Great analysis. Would have loved to read your perspective on the
30% quota commitment for women and potential to realise it. All the
same, it’s a very lucid insight into what is sometimes complex and
confusing process. Forward Somalia! Let’s get this done and hopefully,
pave the way for universal suffrage in 2020.

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