By Mohamed Assair
Saturday May 27, 2023
Is Somalia finally on the road to democracy? Can one state’s local election serve as a turning point for an entire nation? Puntland, a region that has faced its share of Somalia’s civil war, conflict and piracy held a landmark local election that sparked hope for a brighter democratic future. With a history marred by conflict and instability, the prospect of citizens electing their representatives through the ballot box seems like a distant dream.
Turbulent Past Puntland's Road to Democratic Governance
The Puntland democratisation process commenced in 2011 when President Abdirahman Farole tried to hold one person one vote election in Puntland in 2013. Administration set out all key electoral legislations including constitution of Puntland and laws permitting to establish electoral commission of Puntland. With all legal framework put in place and passed by lawmakers , TPEC 1 proceeded with preparations to deliver local government elections in 37 districts in Puntland but that didn’t go well although it would have been good to go for it at time in order to learn from mistake and build on it.
The democratisation process continued to meet challenges for several years after the 2013 elections were called off. The TPEC was dismissed, and a political transition took place through a traditional selection process in January 2014 in which President Abdiweli Gas took office. The new president publicly committed to picking up the stalled democratisation process, and while he established the second Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission (TPEC II) in June 2016, the electoral commission never had the mandate or resources to become operational and the process continued to stagnate with no progress towards holding one person one vote elections.
Following another political transition in January 2019, however, current President Said Abdullahi Deni also committed to resuming the democratisation process, and quickly showed his commitment with the establishment of a fully mandated TPEC III in June 2019. The newly established electoral commission quickly moved ahead with planning and preparations to hold biometric voter registration and elections in three districts. This ‘early election’ model enabled TPEC to build its institutional and technical capacity and build public awareness of and confidence in the democratisation process. The successful early elections, which took place in the districts of Qardho, Ufeyn, and Eyl on 25 October 2021 also served as an important process through which TPEC could identify best practices and lessons learned to apply in the general local government elections which was held on 25 May 2023.
Notwithstanding challenges encountered by this current government, elections have gone, interest of people went up and merely commitment showed by president have resulted to reach this point today. This action was appreciated by all people including young people, disabled, IDPs, women. This strategic move
In these elections, It means a lot to all Somalis around the world as this is first of its kind since 1967 in Somalia, it specifically means, a milestone and historic step taken forward by Puntland government of Somalia to democratize their government, offering a vision of a brighter, more prosperous future. Its also believed that this critical move will bring much-needed changes to the society and government institutions and has the potential to open up new opportunities for citizens across Puntland, it also gives a hope to all Somalis which have been struggling for decades and not got an opportunity to vote and elect for their representative and see that one person one vote election can be done in Somalia without obstacles as challenges learnt from Puntland can be reflected into the future election to move smoothly.
Early elections held in October 2021 have made impressive strides in improving social accountability, security, peace, infrastructure, and social development in those districts, it has increased people’s interest, created platforms to challenge each other and caused politician to be down to earth and seek for votes from people while knocking the door to doors. With their newfound opportunities, people of Puntland now have the opportunity to participate more actively in the decision-making process, and to work together to build a safe, stable, and prosperous democracy.
“What embraced the eye of the people was, a displaced person from southern part of Somalia who fled from conflict there and have been living in Gardo town for a decade was elected and sat now in the Gardo local government. That has showed the real change that this might bring to the country an encouraged many to stand for these elections in other regions.”
Many elite people believe, despite commitment made by government and direct contribution towards the process, transitional Puntland election commission have played a significant role and managed to hold this election in over 37 districts in Puntland. Without their commitment and honest in the process, process would have failed and not reached at this point. It was felt that technical guidance providing on daily basis, adherence of laws and policies set and on time implementation of the plans have resulted to achieve this.
In the last sessions of the parliament of Puntland, lawmakers shared out their interim annual report whereby TPEC was given a score of over 75% because of their commitment, work plan implementation and great achievement made by team including votes registration across all regions. This was highest score given to an institution in Puntland.
What drives Puntland’s local election now?
Over 400,000 people were registered in this election, 60% of that were young people including women who were very keen interested to vote their representatives whilst others want to get elected for a seat in their respective local areas. Second biggest drivers were clan leaders particularly those haven’t getting quota from previous traditional systems have felt this is an opportunity to explore more and look for more seat to have representation in the local elections. Traditional leaders have also felt that this may effect unity as clan cohesion have been in trouble because of selection process led by clan leaders, that have resulted to completely shift from long traditional systems. People have spoken and showed their interest for this process which helped to move forward to continue the process with financial and technical challenges. This reminds me a quote said early Victor Hugo, French poet
"Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come."
Somalia has endured decade of conflict, instability and week governance which has hindered its progress, but allowing people to elect their representatives will establish a legitimate and accountable government that reflects the will and aspirations of its citizens. It will also foster political instability, promote reconciliation, and provides a platform for constructive dialogue to address the country’s pressing issues, moreover, enhances the public trusts, attracts investment and pave a way for social and economic development.
Having said, the democratization process started by Puntland will shift and eliminate the traditional elders who have biggest role in the selection of the representative of the local government, state and federal levels, although this has been effective for so many years to stabilize the country but it seems that era has gone now and new model of selecting representative is needed at this time to safe the country and people.
Despite financial challenges facing by political associations. Political associations were biggest drivers for this as they were able to submit candidates in 37 districts in Puntland , convinced people to select their candidates and opened avenues to express ideas and interact with voters. Level of understanding of the people was very low but that didn’t limit their actions and coming at this point.
Challenges and Opportunities:
The path to democratization is not without obstacles like a country in Somalia, literacy rate is very low, level of understanding is muffled and influence of selfish politician may hinder this process in one way of another, week institutions, ensuring free and fair elections, protecting human rights, and fostering a culture of political pluralism are among the challenges to be faced. Additionally, economic disparities, clan tensions, and the legacy of authoritarianism pose hurdles to the consolidation of democracy in the future specifically when powerful clans get lost a seat in the elections. However, these challenges present opportunities for growth and development, it encourages citizen participation, inclusivity, and transparency, paving the way for sustainable economic progress and social cohesion, shifts in power dynamics, empowering communities and giving them a voice in decision-making processes. It promotes the principles of equality, justice, and respect for human rights
In the nutshell, moving from these traditional systems was a great milestone taken towards democratization as it provides an opportunity to the citizen to elect whoever they think may change the status queue of their respective local government. Charter set in 1998 clearly states to hold an election in 3 years’ time but since then that hope for the people were realized today.
Thousands of people were in queue today, arrived at 4:30 am in the morning, waiting lines till evening to cast their vote and elect their local representatives, this is a historic moment for All Puntland, & Somalia largely, in particular young people who haven’t never seen where election is taking places. This extraordinary time will be remembered and appreciated by all Somalis as clan elders have been quite challenged in the past years. This will open a new direction and road map for Somalia generally and specifically for young boys and girls who are majority of the communities.