One person, one vote elections have taken place only twice in Somalia’s history – in 1964 and 1969. A third democratic election was supposed to take place in August 2016, but has been pushed back to 2020, a target which may also be unachievable.
Prolonged squabbling between Somalia’s federal government and the regions (and among the regions themselves), the war with Al Qaeda-inspired Al Shabaab which hampered peace and state-building efforts, and tension between national leaders and clans are all to blame for today’s government being as frail as its feeble predecessors, despite being touted as the first non-transitional government for 25 years.
The last parliamentary election of 1969 was followed by 21 years of military dictatorship; and, from 1991, a quarter of a century of civil war, state collapse and transitional government(s) giving way to the current “fragile” federal government.
Key aspects of Somali culture epitomise untainted egalitarianism. The distinguished Somalia scholar I.M. Lewis referred to this native classlessness as “pastoral democracy” and equated Somalia’s traditional democracy and customary law (Heer) to Rousseau’s social contract. However, during the short time between the birth of the Somali Republic in 1960 and the onset of the military dictatorship in 1969, genuine democracy did not take root in the newly founded nation state.
During the March 1969 election, 64 parties fielded over 2,000 candidates for the 123 parliamentary seats available. Most of the parties were one-man or exclusive clan-centred platforms. Extensive manipulation of the election – and in some cases outright rigging – gave the ruling Somali Youth League (popularly known as SYL) 73 seats. The remaining 50 seats were shared by 26 parties.
Many believe that the assassination on 15 October 1969 of the second president, Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, father of the current prime minister, had its roots in the election irregularities. His death paved the way for the military coup six days later, on 21 October, which brought General Mohamed Siad Barre to power. No elections were held under his regime, which was finally overthrown in 1991.
As true elections were not practical, a selection process known as the 4.5 formula was adopted in order to form transitional governments in 2000, 2004 and 2009. The current parliament was also selected this way in 2012. In this unwritten but consistently applied arrangement, equal numbers of parliamentary seats were allotted to Somalia’s four major clans, while a pool of minority clans received half of that quota. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the current president, was elected to the post by parliament in September 2012.
Both Somalis and the international community universally welcomed the new president. He presented a Six Pillar Strategy to defeat Al Shabaab and improve security, complete the provisional constitution and federation process, and provide essential services to the citizens.
The government was also given a clear mandate to enable a one person, one vote election in 2016. However, that proved to be too ambitious a plan: the government was more preoccupied with political infighting than forming state institutions and paving the way for proper elections. On 28 July 2015, it announced that a one person, one vote election was not feasible.
Instead, the government promised an improved electoral process to achieve “enhanced legitimacy”. The leading eight politicians (president, prime minister, deputy prime minister, speaker and deputy speaker of parliament plus four regional governors) also formed a super committee known as the National Leadership Forum (NLF). The main responsibility of the NLF was to deliberate on and design the next political dispensation.
Although the new arrangement won international support, the NLF made a series of highly political decisions and at times created uproar among citizens and donors alike because of glaring conflicts of interest, such as appointing ministers and MPs to lead the election facilitation committee.
As the full term of the parliament and the executive approached (20 August 2016 and 10 September 2016 respectively), the NLF and the election facilitation committee (comprised of 17 political appointees) announced on 7 August a two-month extension to the mandate of the executive. The NLF also announced revised dates for the election of the Upper House (25 September), the 275-member Lower House (24 September-10 October), the speaker (25 October) and the president (30 October).
Each of the 275 MPs in the Lower House, 30% of whom must be female, will be elected by a college of 51 electors. The 14,025 voters (51 x 275) will be selected by 135 traditional leaders from across Somalia. Members of the Upper House will be nominated by the federal states. Both parliamentary houses will participate in the election of the president on 30 October.
The spectre of Somalia’s feeble institutions fizzling out was used to justify politicians’ audacity in extending their own mandate in 2016. It remains to be seen if the 2016 selection process happens on time; and whether the promised 2020 popular election takes place or ends up another broken promise.
This briefing was originally written for the Africa Research Institute online elections resource (www.africaresearchinstitute.org @AfricaResearch).