The president of Somalia has signed a landmark federal law, paving the way for the country to hold its first popular election in half a century.
A long awaited “one person, one vote” election could be held by the end of the year.
“It is such a historic time for Somalia, this bill will give Somali people the right to political participation, which they have been denied for 50 years,” said Halima Ismail, chair of the national independent electoral commission.
The law is expected to replace the existing clan-based, power-sharing model, which gives the country’s main clans equal representation in government.
The proposed system would still ensure clan representation in parliament, however, which has raised concerns about the potential for continued marginalisation of minorities and women. Analysts have questioned whether the country is ready for a popular election.
“Although it is different this time, the clan element is still there,” said Ismail. “But parliament will put in place necessary measures to make sure women get their 30% seats reserved.
“We are not there yet, but we have come a long way. There was a time when women had only 4% representation in parliament.”
The last time Somalia had a universal suffrage election was in 1969. Following that were decades of dictatorship, civil war and relentless terrorist attacks.
In a desperate attempt to stop the bloodshed and restore law and order, Somali leaders – with backing from the UN – agreed on a clan-based form of governance known as the “4.5 system”. Under this system, parliamentary seats and most government positions are divided equally among the four major clans, with the remainder allocated to a cluster of minority clans.
This model, which was meant to be a temporary measure to mitigate clan conflict, has become a never-ending problem.
“It is unfortunate that we are still talking about 4.5 clan elections,” said Ismail. “It is not a viable option. People should be free to elect the person they want based on merit, someone they can hold accountable, but this primitive clan system is taking us back whenever we try to move forward.”
Somali women have long struggled to navigate a male-dominated culture where traditional tribal elders select their representatives in parliament, excluding them from decision-making.
But there has been significant progress in recent years thanks to sustained campaigns by Somali women and pressure from the international community, which has been supporting the country’s nascent democratic progress.
In 2016, a 30% parliamentary gender quota was introduced, giving women more leverage to demand greater influence and representation.
In the current government women make up 24% of the 275 representatives in parliament, 10% more following the 2012 election.
“Women are powerless only when they are outside the political space,” said Ikraam Hirsi, who was among a wave of young politicians who dared to challenge the status quo in the last election.
“But once we are in the parliament we have equal votes and have even proven to be more capable and more committed than men.”
Hirsi said she is planning to seek another term to continue the fight for gender equality in Somalia. “Our target is not just 30%,” she said. “We have to demand our constitutional rights for full political participation, we will not stop there until we reach our goal.”
The passing of the law is seen as a milestone by the government and its international partners but many critics, including major opposition leaders and federal member states, say they have not been fully consulted on the changes.
“Given the current political and security situation, a one person, one vote election does not seem feasible,” said Abdimalik Abdullahi, a Somali political analyst.
“Two important federal member states [Puntland and Jubaland] are at loggerheads with the government. There is also a high tension in Gedo region between military forces loyal to the federal government and Jubaland security forces, which could blow into a full-scale conflict.”
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Of particular concern to the opposition parties is article 53 of the electoral law, which says elections will be postponed in the event of a national disaster such as floods, famine or armed conflict. The article is seen as a mechanism that the government could use to extend its term.
Earlier this month, the regional government of Puntland closed the offices of the national independent electoral commission and called for a meeting of the federal member states to discuss critical issues about the elections and the country’s federalism project.
“Puntland administration had closed our offices but they have not boycotted Somalia’s general election,” said Ismail. “They have called for an inclusive dialogue and we hope something good will come out of the expected talks.
“As a commission we have made all necessary preparations for a general election. Every technical detail has been put in place, but it is up to the Somali political leaders to come together and reach consensus on the way forward. If only there is political will among the Somali elites, then it is possible to hold a one person, one vote election by the end of the year.”