Somalia at an electoral crossroads – dilemmas for future democratisation?

5 July 2017 Joanne Crouch

As Somalia embarks upon preparations for one-person one-vote elections in 2020-21, it will need to consider a number of dilemmas. Joanne Crouch introduces Saferworld’s latest research, which aims to help guide planning for peaceful, timely and democratic elections.

Holding free and fair elections in any conflict-affected country is no easy feat. It is essential to anticipate major challenges and pitfalls in navigating a context with actors who have the ability to destabilise the nation and destroy fragile peace gains.

Somalia is no different. The country faces difficult dilemmas ahead in designing, planning and implementing the one-person one-vote elections it’s promised in 2020-21. In our new paper, Electoral Crossroads: dilemmas of future democratisation in Somalia, we draw upon the historical experiences of Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland. Together with analysis of popular perceptions and a review of academic research, Saferworld identifies some of the key issues to address. We present five specific dilemmas to consider.

If Somalia can navigate the following successfully, it could facilitate the popular elections that the Somali population is asking for.

Lifting the lid on the 4.5 system

The introduction of the ‘4.5’ clan-based model for allocating parliamentary seats[1] brought a modicum of stability to Somali politics. It has since the early 2000s mitigated the large-scale inter-clan warfare that long blighted the country. However, this has come at a price; it has created an environment in which changes to the power balance threaten hard-won gains in peace and stability. Shifting to a more democratic electoral system may adversely affect certain clans’ representation in parliament and other governing structures, and they may view with alarm their political competitors’ gains in power and influence; the ways in which they react may threaten Somalia’s democratic transition. But the Somali public will not tolerate much longer a system in which clan elders subjugate their will. The dilemma is not whether to transition away from the 4.5 model, but how and what mechanisms will phase out 4.5 while Somalia continues to build and maintain peace and national unity.

Nationally vs. locally driven democratisation

The dominant approach to elections in Somalia to date has centred on national parliamentary and presidential elections. Whether national or local elections are the most appropriate entry point for democracy requires deeper thought. While national elections can create unity across a fragmented state, given the increasing role of federal member states as the primary conduit of governance, security and service delivery, there is a risk that elections at the national level may create a veneer of democracy that obscures undemocratic and authoritarian governance at the local level. While successful national elections in 2020 will be a significant achievement for Somalia, they will bear little meaning for the lives of Somalis if they continue to live in federal member states characterised by unaccountable governance.

Hard vs. soft deadlines

A clear timeframe for democratisation is important, but whether its deadlines for action are hard or soft will have a major impact on the viability of elections. Excessively rigid timeframes can be prohibitive to ensuring that the necessary institution- and consensus-building is complete. This can lead to outbreaks of violence and failed elections, as seen with Puntland’s cancelled election in 2013. Softer deadlines, historically used in Somaliland, have helped to build consensus and ensure that elections are peacefully implemented. However, when self-interested political actors wilfully ignore deadlines and arbitrarily extend timeframes, this can lead to unaccountable and illegitimate governance and create fertile ground for conflict. 

Pre or post conflict resolution

How elections sit in relation to conflict needs considering. Often elections are used as a tool to consolidate peace in post-conflict countries. However, Somalia’s conflict is still active, with al-Shabaab and other militant groups continuing to destabilise many parts of the country and seeking to prevent democratic elections. It is essential to examine how and why elections are being instituted in Somalia – is it for building the legitimacy of government, creating peace or creating an exit route for international actors who perceive elections as a marker of success? Should elections happen simply because they are good in and of themselves, or can they be a tool for peacebuilding or peace consolidation?  

Electoral financing

Finally, elections in conflict-affected countries often cost enormous sums of money. Although donors have already invested heavily in statebuilding in Somalia, it is important for the international community to reach agreement on the most strategic forms of investment into Somali elections. In particular, there is a need to balance the potential costs of elections with the tangible advances in democracy, transparency and legitimacy that they produce. Given increasing demands for democratisation at all levels, the international community must work with Somali governments to find cost-effective ways to achieve democratic outcomes that the population views as legitimate.

Unfortunately, by no means are the above issues the only ones to contend with when preparing for Somali elections. But drawing on experiences to date, the dilemmas highlighted direct attention to the issues that may derail democratisation if not considered and managed. They speak to what elections mean for Somalis, the Somali culture of consensus building as well as looking towards the future and what stable democracy and peace look like for Somalis and how elections can enable them to get there.

[1] The 4.5 formula is a clan-quota power-sharing formula developed as a tool for political accommodation and reconciliation. The formula assigns seats proportionally to each of the four major Somali clans, with an additional half seat going to the minority clans.

Read more about our work in Somalia.