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Puntland Local Government Elections: Revitalizing the democratic aspirations of Somalia

By Abdimalik Abdullahi

This week was a very special one for the Puntland State of Somalia where democracy has officially resumed and the first direct vote in more than 50 years held in three districts. More than 28,000 voters cast their votes on Monday, 25 October 2021 with the presence of local and international observers. Somali social media was overwhelmed with then joyous and glamorous photos and unique stories from far-flung areas that lifted the spirits of many Somalis who have no memories and experiences of exercising their constitutional right of directly electing their representatives.

Puntland State is the oldest federal member state among the five official federal member states in Somalia and these local government elections were termed by all and sundry as “historic election” on the pretext that it gave citizens in this North-Eastern part of Somalia the first opportunity to (independently) vote for their representatives in more than 50 years; the majority of the youth who are voting for the first time. Eight political associations fielded almost five hundred candidates for eighty-seven seats in three locations and fifty-four polling stations. The elections were concluded peacefully with no major issues and with a very tight competition between three political associations: government-inclined KAAH, MIDEEYE, and CADDAALADDA & SINNAANTA.

The last direct and multi-party election in Somalia was held in 1969, and it was immediately followed by Siad Bare’s military coup in October of that year. A military dictatorship through a one-party system run the country till its collapse in 1991. Except for the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, there has been no universal suffrage in Somalia since the 2000 Arta reconciliation conference. There were indirect elections in Somalia since 2012 after Somalia adopted a federal system and a small number of delegates (51-101) would elect MPs who will in turn vote for the president.

Political commitment and effective preparedness: Ingredients for success

The strong commitment by the current Puntland government led by Said Deni was very instrumental in reinvigorating the stalled democratization process and the successful completion of the election in the first three districts. The administration expressed commitment from the onset with President Deni quickly re-establishing the Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission (TPEC). This timely commitment gave the commission a conducive working schedule and political buy-in that electoral processes desperately need.

Government agencies including the Ministry of Interior, Federal Affairs & Democratization, Ministry of Security, and Puntland parliament have also played crucial roles in fast-tracking the process and preparing the legal and security prerequisites for the local government elections to be held.

The Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission (TPEC) on its part, despite all the odds, delivered its mandate rather well. The team is dynamic drawing its membership from different sections of the society including ex-government officials, veteran journalists, social workers, and academics. The commission has so far displayed capability and competence through technical preparedness and effective communication with stakeholders particularly on the management and conduct of local government election (LGE) in the three districts and the registration of political associations and citizens.

Inclusion and not leaving out anyone

The elections in the three districts brought forth the subject of inclusion where no one is eft behind, and all are given the chance to vote, and be elected. The participation of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), the Elderly, and Persons with Disabilities was evident across the three districts and a positive gesture.

The inclusion of the IDPs in particular sets a good precedence for the rest of the country where sub-national identities that risk undermining the shared Somali identity were on the rise for the past few years.

Bottom-up Democracy

Puntland’s Local Government Elections (LGE) will potentially make a strong case for bottom-up democracy where electoral mechanisms and frameworks are first built from the foundations and local populations at the grass-root levels are allowed to vote for their local representatives hence a perfect prelude for a successful national direct vote.

These local elections will also offer local populations the opportunity to learn and unlearn before a nationwide vote is realized and, in addition to that, loosen the elite capture. It will also boost the legitimacy of the local administrations and state ownership.

Some unique outcomes

A few things stood out when the results of the elections came out. Some of these things spell out a level of maturity and perhaps a positive trajectory for the local government’s elections in Puntland;

• Women secured 23 seats in the three districts. That’s 26% and of course a promising start.

• One representative from the IDPs in Qardho got elected and would join the Qardho district assembly.

• A couple won seats in Qardho on the tickets of two different associations.

• Two brothers from different political associations managed to win seats in the Eyl district.

Lessons and takeaways for the Federal Member States

In the future, lessons from this election can be duplicated in the national electoral arrangements and the local elections by the federal member states of Somalia. Benchmarking on best practices and cross-fertilization between Somalia’s federal member states is an opportunity that can be utilized. Some of the takeaways include:

• Democratization is only effective when it starts with an inclusive and genuine process. These include registration of persons, registration of political associations, and civic education before the actual voting.

• Political commitment by administrations is a fundamental prerequisite for any democratization process.

• Investment in security and building security agencies that people can trust is crucial for holding a direct vote.

• The role of civil society in the democratization process is key. Civil societies should be empowered, given enough space, and a lead role to ensure efficient civic education.

• Trusting the process and leaving room for improvement are important. Perfection and quick fix should not be the objective but rather transitioning from the status quo and giving power back to the people.

International partners

Somalia’s international partners have for a long-time supported ad-hoc electoral arrangements both at national and member states levels under the guise that they are throwing their weight behind “Somali-led, Somali-owned” processes.

With Puntland now setting a good example, it will be incumbent upon the international community to only support direct votes under the next political dispensations and desist from bolstering superficial and farcical electoral arrangements tailored by a handful of the dishonest elite by themselves, for themselves. These include putting pressure on the next government to pursue national priorities that in one way or the other determine the type of electoral model that the country can settle for and moving away from the indirect elections.

What next for the Puntland Local Government Elections?

Going forward, the most important tasks laying ahead are: conducting elections in the remaining 47 districts and the determination of the three main political parties. TPEC ought to maintain the same spirit and capitalize on the lessons learned. The government should also continue the political commitment which is very crucial for the remaining phases. Equally important, political associations should keep faith in the process and continue competing.

• TPEC should keep the momentum and fast-track the remaining phases in real time. The government should also keep its commitment and continue supporting the commission in delivering its mandate.

• Stakeholders should reflect on the voter turnout and dig deeper into the reasons why a considerably large number (more than 30%) didn’t collect the voter cards or didn’t cast their votes. This could be narrowed down through improving and broadening timely civic and voter education.

• Political associations particularly those who didn’t perform well in the three districts should not despair and keep the faith. Most districts are remaining and dynamics might not be the same in all the districts.

Abdimalik Abdullahi is a freelance journalist, researcher, and analyst. He writes and comments on current political developments, governance issues, democratization, and elections of Somalia and the region. He tweets at @Abdimaleik.