Electoral delays should not obscure the country’s progress towards cleaner and more inclusive polls.

The Somali presidential elections have been postponed four times since 10 September, reflective of an imperfect process and the country’s many problems. Despite the resolution of contests for over 90 per cent of seats in the lower house, and the selection of a majority of the 54 members of the newly constituted upper house, repeated interruptions and the need to re-contest some seats mean that the selection of the next president and government will be pushed into 2017.

But progress to date also highlights the success of reforms and an evolution of the political transition. Despite its flaws, Somalia has a more competitive electoral process and political landscape than many countries in the Horn of Africa or elsewhere on the continent. Largely one-sided elections in Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti over the last year are testament to this, as are disputed and delayed polls in Burundi, the Gambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where incumbents refuse to step down. So although frustration is growing among both Somalis and the international community, there is also a pragmatic recognition of the need for patience.

It is important to note that conditions in Somalia continue to make a universal poll impossible. In May, the federal government and national leadership forum instead agreed on a hybrid electoral college model, one that would continue to be based on a clan-based power-sharing formula. Elders from 135 clans and sub-clans selected 14,025 members from across the country to vote for 275 MPs in the lower house (51 members per seat). The upper house represents the six federal states and has been selected by their presidents and state assemblies.

This is a far cry from one-person-one-vote elections, but efforts have been made to widen representation during the 2016 elections, not least in an attempt to dilute the influence of corruption on the overall results, and it represents progress towards a more participatory democracy. The hope is that the continued extension of effective government and security across the country will allow contested, universal elections in 2020. This trajectory is far from certain, and will require continued engagement from weary regional and international partners such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Britain and the US, who are increasingly preoccupied with their own domestic concerns.

Postponements and impediments

Delays occurred ahead of the parliamentary elections for several reasons, including disagreements over the electoral process, disputes within and between Somalia’s nascent federal member states, and the unprecedented logistical and security challenges of holding parliamentary votes in six different cities across the country. Continued insecurity has not helped – the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab vowed to step up its attacks to disrupt the elections – but so far there have been no major assaults at polling sites.

During the elections, reports of corruption, intimidation and vote-buying raised serious questions about the integrity and credibility of the process. In November, the auditor general, General Nur Farah Jimale, claimed that bribes of ‘$1,000–5,000’ and more were being paid to secure votes. There have been several controversial MP selections, including cases of politicians and officials using their clout to manipulate regional results. Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan Noah, the outgoing federal minister of youth and sports, had his win in Hir-Shabelle nullified after being implicated in violence at the polling centre. Such developments will not come as a shock to most Somalis or their international partners, with widespread bribery and corruption widely acknowledged as having marred previous elections in 2012.

Positive developments

On the positive side, there has been an expansion in participation, coverage, oversight and scrutiny (in the press and on social media) of the 2016–17 elections, which should result in a government that is more inclusive, both politically and geographically, than those produced by previous elections. This time, elected members of two houses of parliament will choose the president, whereas in 2012, a parliament consisting of a single house voted. The 2009 elections were held in Djibouti for security reasons, and in 2012 the lower house was selected only in Mogadishu. In 2016, it has been elected in the capital but, more significantly, also in the federal state capitals – which is no mean feat given security issues. Along with the role of federal states in selecting the upper house of parliament, this further ties decision-making processes in the Mogadishu parliament with the regions.

The federal electoral implementation team and electoral dispute mechanism have nullified 11 election results and sought to re-contest seats without disqualified candidates. Though they have faced accusations of being subject to political influence, this demonstrates the ability of federal authorities to respond where there have been cases of misconduct. In addition, a quota is in place for 30 per cent of members in both houses of the federal parliament to be taken up by women. While there has been some resistance, and the election of significantly more female MPs will also be a test for whether Somali politics is genuinely ready to accommodate such change, the final figure is likely to be close to 25 per cent – which will compare favourably with countries such as the UK.

Challenges to come

Money from the Gulf countries, Turkey and others is reportedly funding presidential candidates, with external partners aiming to secure political, business and strategic regional interests through Somalia. However, financial backing will not be enough to secure the presidency. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is the best positioned of several experienced candidates vying for the role. Selection of the president will be marked by identity politics, with members of the same clan unable to hold the posts of speaker of parliament and president at the same time. If the chosen speaker is Hawiye, then Mohamud will be unable to continue as president. Recent history, including when Mohamud was elected, show the incumbent is most often unseated. Fierce political competition lies ahead, with the potential to further strain relations between the federal states and threaten the progress made so far.

One further contentious issue has been the allocation of seats in parliament for the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, despite its government boycotting the Somali electoral process. This reflects a lingering frustration that Somalia’s relationship with Somaliland has not been adequately dealt with, and the desire of constituencies from both Somalia and Somaliland to keep options for a unified Somalia on the table. It is an area that will require fresh impetus under the new administration.

Post-election, the incoming Somali president and government’s main concerns should be to ensure that Somali security forces are capable of providing adequate protection for the government and people, with the likelihood of neighbouring countries withdrawing troops and reduced budgets for the African Union mission. In order to consolidate federalism, further attention needs to be given to the relations between the central government and member states, as well as between the member states themselves, including the sharing and management of resources. The capacity and institutional memory built up during the last government should be protected and consolidated, in order to make good on the goal of preparing Somalia for universal elections in 2020.

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