Amid fading democratic space in Somalia, Puntland prepares for 1st direct election


MOGADISHU, Somalia - Three days left until the local government election day in Puntland which is situated in northeastern Somalia, setting a record for holding the first democratic polls in the Horn of Africa country for more than five decades. 

For 20 years, Somalia struggled to recover from bloody conflict and put systems right, including attempts to conduct one person, one vote ballot, an idea which flopped in 2020 after the incumbent president Farmajo failed to deliver his promises and tried to stay in power beyond his mandate. 

Stakeholders, including the European Union [EU], pumped a lot of resources to sustain one-person-one-vote elections commonly known as universal suffrage polls in democratic nations, but the idea was abandoned months after a number of structures had been put.

With accusations and counter-accusations renting air, the opposition accused the outgoing President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo of "buying time" by "sabotaging" direct polls in the country. This necessitated immediate dialogue to find the best electoral model.

By September 2020, it was clear that the most anticipated dream of holding direct polls in Somalia was just "hot air" as stakeholders settled for indirect polls, traditionally known as the 4.5 model. This model gives clan elders powers to determine who becomes a Member of Parliament.

Even with the historic September 17th agreement, Somalia evidently struggled to hold the indirect polls subsequently, leading to the expiry of Farmaajo's term and that of parliament. As of now, the teams are also struggling to hold elections, with Lower House polls yet to kick off.

But in some positive news, almost all Senatorial posts have been filled following the successful conclusion of the Somaliland elections. The region is given 11 slots in the Upper House despite the fact that Hargeisa does not recognize the arrangement.

Throughout these struggles, the northern state of Somalia; Puntland, has been finding the best way to switch off from the bad history by embracing the democratization process. This has over the years led to the registration of political parties, a process that started under the administration of Abdirahman Farole.

Puntland leads by example

For years, a number of political associations have been registered in Puntland, each given timelines and certain rules to comply with. This, authorities have argued, would give the Federal State an opportunity to elect leaders of their choice.

On 25th October, three districts in Puntland would have an opportunity to elect Local Government officials directly. Further, Somalia itself is yet to hold universal suffrage polls since 1969 after the takeover by military ruler Siad Barre.

Already, the Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission [TPEC] has put mechanisms in place to ensure successful polls. Early this month, in collaboration with other stakeholders, the commission presented the 4th message on how residents can vote peacefully in upcoming Local Government Elections [LGE].

This is part of a series of awareness messages for 2021 local polls. In the messaging, the commission is using the slogan "Your vote is your right" to encourage all registered voters in three districts to show up in large numbers and exercise their democratic rights.

Already, election materials including ballot papers for early LGE arrived at Garowe Airport, which is situated in Garowe, the regional administrative capital of the state. The sort of pilot testing exercise will take place in the districts of Qardho, Eyl, and Ufeyn where registration took place.

TPEC, in a tweet, confirmed that 37,578 cards were distributed which is 80% of the registered voters. Those with voters cards will be allowed to access and vote for their favourite leaders from next week.

The campaign period for local polls started on 26 September 2021 when each political association had three different days until 22nd October 2021 to sensitize voters. At least right political parties have been allowed to fill qualified candidates.

"This will end the beneficiaries of clan polarisation," President Said Abdullahi Deni said during his remarks at an event to launch the local council election campaigns for political associations, expressing optimism towards Puntland's democratization vision.

TPEC's regional commissioners of Mudug, Nugal, Sool, Sanaag, Haylaan, Bari, and Gardafu were formally sworn in September as they prepare to conduct the exercise. Puntland is viewed as the most stable state in Somalia, a country that has struggled with instability for decades.

Farole, the father of democracy in Puntland

The democratization process in Puntland may have not been possible had former President Mohamed Farole failed to put mechanisms in place. Farole, now a Somali senator representing Puntland after serving as the Federal State president from 2009-14.

But in December 2012, under the reign of Farole, political associations were registered for the first time in Puntland since its foundation in 1998.

Under President Farole the Puntland Electoral Commission law was passed and in April 2012 the constitution of Puntland was ratified. But with the activities almost stalling after the exit of Farole, it's the current President Said Abdullahi Deni who restarted the process.

In June 2009, the Farole administration passed a new regional draft constitution, which is believed to represent a significant step toward the eventual introduction of a multi-party political system to the Federal state for the first time.

In September 2012, the Puntland Election Commission announced that the registration process for political parties in Puntland was now open. This came after the passing of the Political Association Law, the Referendum Act, the District Elections Law, and the inauguration of the state constitution.

His successors worked on the path paved by Farole. Deni, soon after taking over gave TPEC a conducive and flexible working schedule and timelines. The current administration made efforts to hold early local government elections in three districts - Eyl, Ufeyn, and Qardho.

On the other hand, the Puntland parliament has completed all the necessary legal mechanisms for the elections in close collaboration with MOIFAD and TPEC. It's worthy to note that Farole, who generally started the democratization process, has worked hard to realize the multi-party system. 

The multi-party system of elections and direct local government elections is a new system for Puntland, and Somalia in general. It will take time for people to understand and fully adjust to universal suffrage. But the state will be remembered for initiating the process.

There are considerably low levels of awareness when it comes to the registration process, political associations, and the importance, roles, and responsibilities of Local Government Councils. This will also be the first direct polls in Puntland since its formation in 1998.

The international community has already backed direct polls in Puntland's three districts on Oct 25, with British Ambassador Kate Foster visiting the northern state in late September. The British envoy vowed to support the exercise, adding that other states should emulate Puntland.

"I’m delighted to be here in Puntland State, my first visit as British Ambassador. It’s a pleasure to discuss our support here, the strong progress towards elections in Puntland, and to meet the TPEC and civil society," she said.

"The upcoming local elections in Puntland are of historic significance. If completed successfully, they will demonstrate that One Person One Vote elections are possible in Somalia. The pace of voter registration indicates that people want to have a more direct say in the selection of individuals and associations that represent them."

What are experts saying?

There is no doubt that the upcoming elections in Puntland have triggered enthusiasm and charisma among voters, with women being the most registered in numbers. The region joins Somaliland as one of the states that have significantly expanded the democratization process.

"Congratulations to Puntland State for their strong preparations for pilot elections in Qardho, Eyl, and Ufayn on 25 October. Campaigns have started in Puntland to test the viability of 1P1V in 3 districts. The pilot project marks a milestone," says Rashid Abdi, an analyst on the Horn of Africa matters.

"This is the future of Somalia. Strengthening our federal system hinges on local democratization. Puntland and its leadership deserve credit for this. Kudos to the TPEC team led by Guled Salah for successful implementation. Hope other states follow your footsteps," adds Abdi Aynte, a scholar.

Security has been improved in the region ahead of these elections, with the Puntland Security Forces [PSF] intensifying the fight against Al-Shabaab militants. The militants have lately started making inroads into the region, but the efforts have been thwarted.

Of course, it will be a major mile in history, but the state will have a big test of time to deliver and perhaps show practical examples about the democratization process to all other states. Most of the states are still stuck in the traditional 4.5 model.


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