In the dictionary definition, democracy “is government by the people in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.” In the words of Abraham Lincoln, democracy is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Democracy is to give people the opportunity to vote for their leaders. It is an inclusive political system in which all groups can participate, and all voices are heard. It means they are included in the critical decision-making process in their country.
Puntland State of Somalia was established in 1998 mainly for two objectives: to be a leading member of future federal states and to provide security and necessary services to the local people.
The process of democratization started in Puntland immediately after its inception, but was stalled after many challenges were encountered. All consecutive governments in Puntland tried to establish universal suffrage but failed. Both President Abdirahman Faroole and Abdiweli Gaas tried but miserably failed due to some political greediness. President Faroole started the process immaturely after finishing his four-year term by using constitutional approval of the revised constitution as leverage to extend his mandate from four years to five. However, his administration has passed a provisional Constitution and the most necessary legislations to pave the way for multiparty democracy in Puntland. President Gaas, who studied and lived in the world’s oldest democratic country—USA, was hesitant about the process from the beginning, thinking future political associations might challenge him. His administration appointed the Puntland Transitional Electoral Commission (TPEC), known as TPEC II, but did not provide them the financial and political support to succeed. Nevertheless, this government has initiated the process early on. Starting the democratisation process was one of the campaign pledges of President Said Deni and indeed, he started the process in his second year of office.
The electoral process in Puntland has emerged as a result of the continuous process, the willingness of the people to maintain their social cohesion, political independence, the rule of law and economic opportunities and to elect their preferred political association.
It’s worth mentioning that Puntland has the norms to regularly change its leaders peacefully and democratically, but unfortunately not through a popular vote. Usually, clan elders select state parliament members through a clan-based process, who in turn elect the President and Vice President of the state.
Democracy is not perfect, but it is arguably the best system of government available. Puntlanders dreamed many years to have a say in the affairs of their state and for their voices to be heard, but that dream has yet to came true. Today, the dream is resoundingly real – thousands of citizens are lined up to cast their ballots and vote for their preferred political associations in the local elections of three districts: Qardho, Eyl and Ufeyn, for the first time in 54 years. Many of the voters have never voted before or seen similar voting rights exercised.
The early elections of these three districts will not decide which political association would form a political party. Presumably, after the majority of the district elections, the TPEC will recognise the three political associations that won the highest number of votes in the local council elections as political parties and they will then become eligible to contest the parliamentary and presidential elections.
The Transitional Electoral Commission (TPEC) has done a remarkable job in a two-year span, in a challenging environment. After their appointment, the commission started the process, including recruiting newly qualified staff, educating the people about the process of democratization, formulating new laws, policies, and guidelines for the future political parties, registering political associations and making sure associations to meet prerequisite criteria, certifying them and starting the process of the three district early elections. The job of the commission was not done there. Training new staffers, voter registration, and issuing voting cards would never be easy in a fragile community with poor infrastructure. With minimal resources and support from the government, corrupt gatekeepers, and judicial and legislative limitations, the TPEC has overcome many complex challenges and succeeded in this victorious and joyful historic day.
After receiving extensive training on how to conduct the election, all electoral staffers took the oath to deliver fair and free elections. On 25th October 2021, 37,578 eligible voters in 54 polling stations of three districts: Qardho, Ufeyn and Eyl, have cast their vote, in the first one person one vote election in their lifetime. As a result, a total of 449 candidates of 8 Political Associations contested for 87 seats in three local municipal elections, which was the first time in Somalia (outside of Somaliland) and introduced biometric cards for voters for the first time. Nearly two hundred local and international observers and reporters are at the polling stations in the different districts to observe and witness this historic day to report any election irregularities.
From time to time, cheers have erupted from some of the polling stations. One voter said, “We feel happy now; I have the choice; yes, we can elect our councilors.” Some of them cried as they believed that they would never vote for the rest of their life. “I am the happiest person in the world because this has guaranteed my citizenship as I have voted,” said one young voter. Whatever challenges are available, Puntlanders are showing the way for other regions to follow.
October has many dark days in Somali history. On 15th October 1969, the Somali’s second democratically elected President was killed while touring in Lasanood. On 21st October in the same year, Somalia’s democracy was stolen by a military coup d’état. Nearly a thousand innocent Somali citizens, including women, children, and elderly people, were massacred on 14th October by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) placed by the terrorist organisation Al-Shabaab.
The one-person-one-vote electoral process convinces the people that they own the process. It will not only promote such fundamental democratic values and good governance principles, but also help create a more secure, stable, and prosperous community. Nevertheless, the process demands a high-trust and transparent environment. The people’s expectations are very high, and some believe that if direct elections take place, everything will change overnight. However, the challenge that requires immediate attention is to improve the lives of the local residents, balancing the interest of the different actors, especially if the government political association loses to the other political associations and uniting local people for the common cause.
Other countries have realized this dream for their citizens; however, the people of Puntland and Somalis at large “know that universal suffrage democracy is a delicate plant, particularly in its early years.” Therefore, this plant needs to be nurtured, watered, pruned, and all citizens should be the guardians of the process, so they can add to it and pass it to the next generation and the generations after.
• To keep the momentum created by the early elections, TPEC should start the process of holding elections of the remaining districts as early as possible.
• As a lesson learned, TPEC, Puntland government and political associations should review the existing electoral systems and carry out civic education campaigns to reach illiterate and nomadic communities to register themselves and take voting cards.
• Hold public forums for ideas, community consultations involving all stakeholders and the public to generate ideas to improve the process and avert elections delays of the remaining districts.
• The Puntland government should allocate enough budget for TPEC and International Partners should provide financial and technical support to TPEC and other stakeholders.
• To convince other districts to follow suit, international partners are requested to invest in viable and tangible projects and spend donor funds wisely to generate more income and economic development projects.
To sum up, a journey to fully functioning democracy requires daily inputs and continuous improvements of thoughtfully designed policies and institutional and legal reforms. This will ensure a government system with political inclusivity, the rule of law, justice, and security tenets upheld and anchored on democratic institutions. Prioritising and increasing access to education, improving essential and basic health services and water accessibility. Independent media and organized civil society are critical to the democratization process. Therefore, the key challenge for the democratization of Puntland is how to quickly and smoothly the move from the clan system to total constitutional democracy can take place and how that transition is handled thoroughly applied to all districts. Remember, democracy does not end at the polling station; it requires transparent, political independence and the rule of law.
About the author
Mohammed Baldho is a Trainer, Writer and political analyst
Follow him on twitter @m_baldho