Aug 21, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Long-awaited Somali Poll Postponed: Trouble Ahead?

The news out of Mogadishu is that yesterday’s scheduled election, in which freshly appointed members of parliament were to select a new president, was postponed. MPs announced the delay in advance of their inaugural session, telling reporters that unspecified work must still be completed before parliament can proceed with the election for both president and speaker of the house.

The reason for the delay? While it’s easy to be cynical about Somalia’s transition — the latest in a series of failed attempts characterized by violent opportunism, shifting clan loyalties, and counterproductive foreign interventions — yesterday’s announcement likely derives as much from concerns over proper procedure as it does from outright political dysfunction.

Somali representatives and government officials have been operating on an accelerated timeline following the August 1 implementation of the new constitution. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG), an 8-year old, western-supported regime with only sporadic control of Mogadishu much less the surrounding regions in South/Central Somalia, lost its governing mandate on August 20 — yesterday. So by the time the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) finalized the new constitution, it had 19 days to complete a variety of tasks before the sun set on the old government. These included, among other things, publishing a public list of traditional leaders and empowering a technical selection committee to vet and appoint 275 new members of parliament. Although the technical committee’s job was made somewhat more simple by the institution of a 4.5 rule — assigning each of the four major Somali clans 61 seats, and a coalition of smaller clans a single allotment half that size — the selection criteria came under significant pressure as the committee was lobbied by not only domestic actors, but international ones as well, some of whom sent the committee intelligence information about potential selectees and their alleged roles in fomenting or organizing political violence in the past. Female representation emerged as a particularly contentious issue as well after the new constitution was passed without a 30 percent quota for parliament, which had been included in previous drafts. And clans of course engaged in fierce advocacy — and outright bribery, the UN claimed — to promote certain nominees and preempt disqualification of others.

These issues slowed the process to the point where as of yesterday morning, only 215 of 275 individuals had been appointed and sworn in as members of Somalia’s new parliament. Although the transitional procedures allow for an election with only a two-thirds quorum (184 MPs), the decision to delay may suggest that leading MPs recognize the distinction between formal procedure and legitimacy. The new constitution and corresponding 4.5 formula were built upon agreement from a fragile conglomeration of clans, traditional leaders, and members of the political and business elite — all of whom have been notorious in the past for fleeting allegiances and a remarkable capacity for disruptive behavior. Their full participation in the upcoming election may be necessary to ensure cross-cutting clan buy-in and avoid the emergence of powerful spoilers. Rather than risk disaffection by adhering to a strict timeline, the committee seems to have chosen a safer, and potentially more fruitful, path by swearing in all successfully vetted members and appointing the senior-most MP as temporary speaker to guide the representative body in its duties as the next steps are further prepared and negotiated. Early reports indicate that the decision to delay has the support of most key participants.

Still, that these calculated delays were even necessary speaks to a deeper level of political distress. The most recent draft constitution, on which the final version was based (with only minor changes), was generated on June 12. Even with a looming August 20 deadline for transition, the NCA could not move the draft into its final form for nearly two months, owing in part to fundamental disagreements over democratic principles and, as mentioned above, female participation in government. Ultimately the quota for female MPs was dropped as part of a “gentlemen’s agreement” among elders to appoint a similar percentage of female members without a permanent law mandating such representation. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if the issue didn’t emerge from a place of pretty severe skepticism over the role of women in public life. I recently spoke to a former Director General in a TFG ministry who expressed strong misgivings over current female parliamentarians, many of whom he accused of subverting traditional Somali values and engaging in dishonorable and despicable behavior that shouldn’t be repeated here. Though his opinion is not universally shared, Somalia’s largely traditional and Islamic society has lagged behind others in empowering women to take on significant public roles. And despite the “gentlemen’s agreement” that broke the stalemate a few weeks ago, the proportion of new female parliamentarians has thus far not approached 30 percent. Not even close.

Yet this issue, while important, is not the largest area of concern, nor source of potential future breakdown. That distinction, unsurprisingly, still rests with the clans and their often incompatible motivations for political engagement. While many observers are once again hailing this moment as a great achievement — the UN even released a rather optimistic joint statement with other actors that proclaimed an end to the transition — it’s important to remember that little has yet changed. Parliamentarians were selected, not elected. The 4.5 clan formula is still the basis for representation rather than districts based on population or geography. The leading candidate for president is thought by most to be the current president, a former member of a prominent Islamist Courts movement in 2006 and thought to lack political strength and a broad constituency. Somaliland’s status remains unresolved. Puntland’s transition may have difficulty moving forward without a more clearly defined political relationship between the federal regions (particularly regarding electoral systems and political parties). Public support for the whole enterprise is questionable since the TFG was never widely loved, seen primarily as a western creation that did little but prolong conflict. In a still insecure environment, communities will remain loyal to their clan which only further endows elders with political power and entrenches clan interests in the fabric of federal government politics.

If history is any guide, clans may be constructive participants only to the extent that they perceive a positive result for their communities. Political power being a finite resource, the presence of all major clan communities in Mogadishu may be the biggest, albeit counterintuitive, sign that the status quo remains. If real change was occurring, we would likely see at least a few prominent defections from those who lost out on the reapportioning of power. As it is, everyone seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach — and they’re even more inclined to do so since the AU’s intervention force, AMISOM, seems only weeks away from finally taking the last major al-Shabaab stronghold in Kismayo, south of Mogadishu. If that happens, and AMISOM further secures South/Central and the areas around Mogadishu, it will represent the largest area of influence for a non-Islamist Somali government in many, many years.

That’s a prize worth sticking around for, and the new government (if and when a president is elected and appoints a cabinet) will face much steeper internal challenges if al-Shabaab is further marginalized in both geography and operating capacity. Stability and security are two of the most important needs for Somalia, so this result would certainly be welcome in that respect. But the worry is that such stability would be illusory and fleeting if the government succumbs to the inevitable pressure that would emerge from clans and elite actors competing over access to the first meaningful state institutions in a generation. Provided access by the new constitution, all major groups are now positioned in Mogadishu to do just that. The following weeks and months will be the true test for the durability of this new transitional government.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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