Somalia is preparing to move from a clan-based political system to one-person, one-vote elections in 2020 to replace delegate-based elections in which clan elders pick members of parliament who would in turn choose a president.
In 2016, Somalia and its Western backers cancelled a plan for a one-person, one-vote system due to fears of attacks by Al-Shabaab, who had vowed to disrupt any form of election.
More than a dozen political parties have been formed to replace clan-based politics and members of parliament and senators are required to be members of a political party by this October or they will lose their seats.
Most of these parties face numerous challenges including technical know-how and recruitment and a hostile environment. The political parties, some of whom are based outside the country, are required to register 10,000 members and open offices in half of the country’s 18 regions.
“Registering 10,000 members could be difficult for these new parties. They will most likely seek membership from their clan members. Although we are progressing, we will still have clan-based parties,” said Ali Abdirahman, a businessman in Mogadishu.
Some of these parties are run by individuals as an “enterprise” and many do not have offices. This prompted a warning from the chairperson of the National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC). “Any party that is confirmed to have no physical address or does not operate as a genuine political party will lose its registration certificate,” Ms Halima Ismail, the NIEC chair, warned.
However, observers say the creation of new political parties is a major step towards a return to democracy and a sign of enthusiasm for multi-party politics in the Horn of Africa nation that is recovering from three decades of a brutal civil war that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. Ms. Ismail said multi-party democracy will help eliminate tribalism and will enable the country move from clan-based politics. “Political parties are required to build their institutions properly but when a political party does not open offices, it shows it cannot act as a government in-waiting,” she added.
Currently, Somalia’s politics is clan-based where clans share political power. It uses a system known as 4.5, where each of the four major clans get equal political representation while the smaller clans, represented as 0.5, share the remaining slots.
The four major clans share the presidency, premiership, speaker of the parliament and the head of the judiciary. Last year 135 clan elders selected 14,025 electors who later picked 275 members of parliament who in turn elected a president. The election was held inside an airport hangar in the capital, Mogadishu, for security reasons and there were allegations of corruption including voter bribery.
Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda-linked group fighting to overthrow the internationally-backed government based in Mogadishu, threatened to disrupt the election.
Al-Shabab still remains a threat to the democratisation of Somalia and it will be much harder for political parties to open offices in at least nine of the 18 regions of Somalia in some of which Al-Shabaab has significant presence.
The group continues to target clan elders who participated in the election of 2016, executing some of them in public in a move to instil fear of public involvement in a secular election.
The African Union Mission in Somalia, commonly known as Amisom, plans to withdraw its troops in 2020 the same year direct elections are planned and when Somali forces are expected to take over responsibility for the country’s security.
If the security situation remains as it is it will be harder than ever for the public to come out and take part in the first democratic election in 50 years.