Future of Somalia’s Ruling System in Light of Upcoming Presidential Elections

Ahmad Askar | 06 Apr 2020

Somalia is on tenterhooks following the approval by Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo of a new elections law, based on the principle of “one person, one vote”. Views among the country’s political forces vary, with the law already having faced a wave of criticism and calls for its reconsideration on the grounds that it is not suited to the current political, economic, and security conditions. The government and the political opposition in Somalia are highly polarized at a time when the country is preparing to hold its first direct elections at the end of 2020. Such polarization has led to further speculation about the future of the elections and of the president’s regime in the coming period.

Who’s Who in Somalia

Several political parties, forces, and personalities dominate the Somali political scene, each enjoying a significant degree of political influence.

1. The federal government

The ruling regime wants to hold on to power for a second presidential term, as evidenced by the government’s continued attempts to influence loyalties and to build internal and external alliances. It is also seeking to strengthen its influence in certain regional states and win the loyalty of tribes there, as well as attracting large sections of Somali society, in particular young people and particular tribes and clans. The government is attempting to reach understandings and compromises with opposition states, and to establish a new ally state in the regions of Sool and Sanaag and the district of Ayn at the expense of Puntland, in order to ensure the formation of a counter-alliance against opposition states and the political opposition. Under the new law, the federal government also controls the election process, meaning that it will have more influence over the results. Furthermore, Farmajo’s party has not yet announced whether he will be standing in the upcoming elections, which has multiple implications regarding the likelihood that the elections will be held on schedule.

2. The political opposition

The political opposition in Somalia is represented by certain regional states and as a number of political parties, of which there are more than 60. While the leading opposition parties are led by prominent former officials, there are also a number of independent candidates who enjoy a reasonable level of popular support. Opposition forces in Somalia play an effective role in the political scene, and they resonate remarkably well with domestic public opinion, as they have taken action to garner both official and popular support at home and abroad. They also have a prominent presence in domestic media and on social media. The opposition is attempting to form alliances, such as the Forum for National Parties, in order to unify efforts to oppose the Farmajo regime in the upcoming elections, despite the restrictions placed by the government on their activities.

a. Federal states

The federal states are an important political force in Somalia. They frequently oppose the policies of the federal government, which has led to deterioration in the relationship between the two sides, most notably in Jubaland, Puntland, and Somaliland. Despite various attempts, the federal government has failed to overthrow the leaders of these states and to suppress their supporters, which has further aggravated the situation. These states have rejected the new electoral system on the grounds that it establishes a new dictatorship in the country.

b. Main opposition parties and forces

i. Union for Peace and Development Party (UPD): Led by former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the UPD is one of the strongest opposition parties in Somalia. It includes a number of prominent Somali politicians and former officials, in addition to several members of parliament. The party has good domestic and foreign relations, in particular with Turkey, which is an ally of the current regime.

ii. Himilo Qaran: The party is led by former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. One of its most prominent members is the former Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Osman Jawari. The party strongly opposes the ruling regime, and hosts meetings to consult with other opposition parties at its headquarters. It enjoys significant public support, given the popularity of its leader and his political legacy. It also maintains good regional and international relations.

iii. Wadajir Party: Established in December 2014, the party is led by Abdul Rahman Abdul Shakur, who stood as a presidential candidate in the 2017 elections. The party is one of the fiercest opponents of the federal government and its allies. Its supporters are based in the capital, Mogadishu, and in a number of other cities in Somalia and in the Somali diaspora abroad.

iv. Forum for National Parties: The forum was established in October 2019 with the aim of achieving free and fair elections in Somalia. It includes six political parties, namely Himilo Qaran, the UPD, the Ilays Party, the Klin (Congress) Party, and the Peace Party. The Wadajir Party withdrew from the alliance because of its leader’s objections to the appointment of a forum president. The forum is led by Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who, during a conference in Istanbul in early 2020, decided to establish a unified political party to compete in the upcoming elections.

v. Independents: Independent candidates have significant influence in Somali politics, as they enjoy significant public support, in particular among community and business leaders, most notably the former president of Galmudug state Abdikarim Hussein Guled and the former Minister of Information Taher Mahmoud Jaili. Despite participating for only the first time and despite their strong ties to government institutions, independent candidates have a good chance in the upcoming elections.

vi. Islamists: Following the decline of the Salafi movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, jihadism now dominates Islamist tendencies in Somalia. Political Islam is no longer seen as the solution, following the failed experiments in Islamist governance in Somalia. The “Salafi” Jemaat Aletsam bil-Kitab wa al-Sunna, the Islamic Reform and Assembly Movement (the Muslim Brotherhood), and the Aal Sheikh Group are among the most prominent Islamist forces in Somalia, and they are active in several regions, including Puntland and southern Somalia.

External influence

Given the agendas of the various regional and international powers involved in Somalia, which are seeking to maximize their strategic interests in the country, there is certain to be significant regional and international involvement in the elections. External influence will therefore have a significant impact on the elections as the various forces attempt to get their allies into power.

The USA: Somalia has been the subject of American attention since the collapse of Barre’s government in 1991. This attention has grown as American interests have expanded and as domestic and regional terrorism has increased. Farmajo has a good relationship with the US administration. Washington may therefore not be opposed to a second term for Farmajo.

The United Kingdom: While the United Kingdom is attempting to increase its presence in Somalia, it is not engaging actively in domestic politics in order to preserve its political neutrality and protect its strategic interests. It may support the current regime in the upcoming elections.

Turkey: Ankara has a significant presence in Somalia, and has managed to forge strong ties with Farmajo’s government, even though Farmajo was not Turkey’s preferred candidate to win the 2017 elections. Ankara may therefore continue to support Farmajo during the upcoming elections.

Ethiopia: Ethiopia has a strong influence over the politics, economy, and security of Somalia. Together with Somalia and Eritrea, Ethiopia has been the forefront of recent transformations in the region. Addis Ababa may therefore not be opposed to a second term for Farmajo, given the good relations between two countries.

Kenya: Relations between Kenya and Somalia have deteriorated visibly owing to the dispute over maritime borders. Nairobi is therefore supporting a number of states and figures that oppose the current regime. If the dispute between the two countries continues, Kenya will not be in favor of Farmajo retaining power.

Qatar: Qatar is pursuing a dual strategy in the run-up to the elections by supporting multiple candidates, in order to avoid a repeat of 2017 when it supported the losing candidate, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

Leading potential candidates

There are many political figures keen to run in the upcoming elections, most notably:

Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo: Farmajo has served as the president of Somalia since February 2017. He also served as prime minister from November 2010 to June 2011. He is the leader of the Tayo party, which he founded in 2011.

Sharif Sheikh Ahmed: He currently chairs the Forum for National Parties and is the leader of Himilo Qaran. He served as the seventh president of Somalia between 2009 and 2012, during which time he achieved a number of successes that contributed to a growth in his popularity, such as expelling Al-Shabaab from the capital and the surrounding areas. He also oversaw the adoption of the current constitution. He has held various meetings with regional and international officials regarding the situation in Somalia.

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud: A politician and university professor, Mohamud is the founder and leader of the opposition Union for Peace and Development Party. He held the presidency between 2012 and 2017, and he has supporters in Hirshabelle, Galmudug, and Mogadishu states.

Abdul Rahman Abdul Shakur: One of the fiercest opponents of Farmajo’s regime, he was arrested on charges of inciting instability and threatening domestic security once Farmajo came to power. He became a member of parliament in 2009. He also served as Minister of Planning and International Cooperation under President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

Ambassador Taher Mahmoud Jaili: He has held a number of roles, including head of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Ministry of Justice and Religious Affairs, member of federal parliament, and, for one year, Minister of Information. He also served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia between 2015 and 2018.

Mohammad Abdul Rahman Sirin: Sirin is a businessman, humanitarian activist, and leader of the Klin (Congress) Party. He has announced his intention to stand in the upcoming elections.

Possible scenarios

1. Possible scenarios regarding the presidential elections

Scenario 1: The elections are postponed. This is the most likely scenario, given the possible continuation of the coronavirus crisis in various countries, which has already prompted the Somali government to take emergency measures to limit its spread. Furthermore, Farmajo needs more time to win over certain states and regions, achieve greater security throughout the country, and ensure that the mechanisms are in place to allow the elections to be held. He is also afraid that the country’s political polarization will worsen, that opposition alliances will prevent him from winning the elections, and that certain states will challenge his regime. In addition, the financial cost of the elections is expected to exceed $53 million, placing a significant burden on the public budget.

This scenario may lead to a situation in which Farmajo remains in power indefinitely, possibly for as long as one to two more years until a new election date is set. Article 56 (7) of the new elections law allows the President to postpone the elections and retain the existing government in the event of a force majeure. The current regime intends to remain in power by exploiting the international community’s preoccupation with sensitive issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout, to allow to get away with postponing the elections.

There is a high political cost to this scenario. The opposition will reject the postponement of the elections, leading to political turmoil and possibly further entrenching the country’s political crisis and extending the political horizon.

Scenario 2: The elections are held as scheduled. This scenario is less likely, as there are a number of outstanding domestic issues that the current regime will first want to resolve, such as overcoming the disputes with the autonomous regions of Puntland and Jubaland, increasing the country’s security in light of the activities of Al-Shabaab, and compensating for the delay in the launch of logistical operations, such as voter registration, in preparation for the elections. Moreover, Farmajo’s party has not yet announced that he will run in the upcoming elections. It will also be challenging to hold elections in certain states and regions that have strained relations with the central government, and in areas under the control of Al-Shabaab. There are therefore doubts surrounding the country’s ability to proceed with the elections.

There will be a political cost if Farmajo loses the presidency, as well as an additional financial burden for the government if it must hold the elections under the current conditions.

Scenario 3: The government annuls the new elections law and returns to the quota system (4.5). This scenario is very unlikely, given the regime’s refusal to bow to opposition demands to review to new law, and its conviction that direct elections need to be held to satisfy the international community. The government is also afraid that it would be at a disadvantage under the old electoral system, given its loss in domestic popularity. A return to the old electoral system is also unlikely given the fixed political horizon and the state of political polarization in the country.

This scenario will occur if the government does not implement the new elections law and returns to the old system (4.5). However, this is unlikely to occur if the government commits to implementing the new law, if the presidential elections are held on schedule, and if the government and the opposition remain polarized.

2. Possible scenarios once the elections have taken place

Scenario 1: Farmajo wins a second term. This is the most likely scenario, as the government has control over the election process, and it supports the extension of Farmajo’s rule. Farmajo is attempting to win the vote of most tribes and various sectors of society, and he has limited the ability of opposition forces to canvass popular support. He has also used political funds to win votes, and has successfully built a network of regional and international alliances to support him in winning a second term.

This scenario is more likely if the opposition forces do not rally behind a single candidate and the opposition vote is fragmented. The government will need to establish new regional administrations in areas loyal to it and to win over various tribes and clans, and Farmajo will need to win the support of several regional states. Farmajo’s chances will decrease if the opposition unites behind a single candidate, or if it succeeds in exposing the disadvantages of the current regime, or if the opposition states unite to bring down Farmajo in the elections.

Scenario 2: Farmajo loses, and Somalia gets a new president. This scenario is less likely, given the likelihood that the elections will be postponed indefinitely, the demonization of the political opposition by the current regime, and the lack of confidence in the alternative candidates, all of whom are either former officials who have already failed in office or are new candidates with limited experience and popular support.

This scenario will become more likely if the opposition forces and states agree to back a single opposition candidate capable of winning regional support and if the opposition is able to erode the popularity of the ruling regime to its own benefit. This scenario becomes less likely, however, if the elections are postponed. It is also made less likely by the National Electoral Commission’s limited independence, the fragmentation of votes among opposition candidates, and the lack of regional support for and popular confidence in the opposition candidates.

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