Somalia is in search of an electoral model for the scheduled 2020/21 political transition. An ad hoc 15-member parliamentary committee was mandated to review the National Electoral Bill (NEB) approved by the Council of Ministers. It submitted to the parliament a reviewed version of the NEB at a joint meeting by the two chambers of parliament on 27th November 2019. The Committee proposed a ‘First Past the Post System’ as an electoral model for Somalia. After deliberations, the House of the People of the Somali Federal Parliament approved the election bill on 28th December 2019, and the bill will go to the Upper House for review before a final ratification by the President.
The model was based on the assumption that one-person-one-vote national elections cannot happen in Somalia in 2020/21 as the legal infrastructure is not yet ready for it. The committee contended that the lack of permanent constitution, citizenship law, census, and demarcations of the district boundaries make ‘one person one vote elections’ impossible. Nonetheless, the committee stated that all the stakeholders they had consulted with expressed the need for a timely election and opposed extensions.
The First Past the Post System
The committee proposed a ‘FPTP System’ based on Single Member Plurality (SMP) for Somalia. The commission stated that the model is suitable for Somalia. First, each parliamentary seat will be contested separately. Second, as the name First Past The Post suggests, the candidate with the most vote wins the seat. Third, voters select one candidate from the list of candidates. Fourth, it ensures the ‘clan’ representation in the parliament as clan members will compete for their respective seats in the parliament. Fifth, the community in the electoral district will have an equal chance to vote for the candidate of their choice. Sixth, the voters can come from one or more regional states.
First Past The Post (FPTP) or winner takes all is a form of electoral system, and is used in different countries to varying degrees. It falls under the plurality/majority system under which seats are awarded to the candidate who garners most votes in an election compared to his/her contender(s). To put it simply, after votes cast and totaled, the candidate with the most votes wins the seat.
Changing Models: Putting the Choice in Context
A ‘Proportional Representation – Closed List’ electoral model was at the centre the original National Election Bill approved by the Council of Ministers on May 02, 2019. This model was initially agreed by the federal government and federal member states in the National Security Council meeting in Baidoa in June 2018. In this model, registered eligible voters vote for parties, not candidates, and the percentage of votes received by parties nationally is translated into seats using a seat allocation formula (the NEB proposed a ‘pure’ Sainte-Lague system).
After the cabinet approval of the NEB, some regional states opposed this electoral model, especially the single constituency and proposed state-level constituencies. Intending to remove the controversy and doubts that cloud over the bill, the speaker of the parliament selected a 15-member ad-hoc parliamentary committee on 20th July 2019 to review all of theprovisions of the bill and get it back to the House for further deliberations.
Pursuant of their task, the committee has had consultations with multiple groups who holding stakes in the proposed bill, notably the Federal Ministry of Interior, politicians across the spectrum, research and academic institutions, youth groups, and clan elders to incorporate their insights into the review.
The committee articulated their rejection of the previous model embedded in the NEB due to its wide refusal from the different sectors of the society engaged. This was due to it being a new system that was difficult to fathom, and its inability to maintain the clan power-sharing formula. In addition, it cited the weaknesses of the PR model, such as weakening the accountability of the MPs to the electorate.
Consequently, they justified the adoption of the FPTP model for being convenient in the context of Somalia in preserving the clan power-sharing system that Somalia has been accustomed to since the Arta conference of 2000. However, they failed to mention the weaknesses of the model alongside its strengths. This is necessary to compare, contrast, and then decide which best serves the interests of the nation without being biased to any specific model.
Merits and Demerits of the ‘FPTP System’
The FPTP, like other voting systems, is attributed to a number of merits and demerits, and these are the point of departure where one could decide whether this model best suits the context of Somalia or not. First, it is argued that this model is simple for the electorate to understand compared to the ‘Proportional Representation – Closed List.’
Second, FPTP helps strengthen the direct relationship between representatives and electors. Electorates get direct communication channels to their elected MPs and discuss with them on pressing demands in their constituency. MPs will become beholden to their electorate and reflect their interest when engaging in public policy debates in the parliament. This stands out from the Proportional Representation – Closed List, where MPs are beholden to their party and obliged to submit to its pressure.
Third, this model fits with the reality on the ground, where there are no established and fully registered political parties. It is a candidate-centered system and allows popular independent candidates to win a seat in parliament. This suits environments where politics is wedded to kinship ties, like Somalia, rather than a context with established party politics.
On the other hand, the model has a number of limitations. First, under the FPTP, the composition of the parliament is unfair, unlike the Proportional Representation – Closed List. The winner of a contested seat in a geographic area may be declared winner with a very narrow margin compared to the runners-up. This could translate into a situation where the victor of the seat does not represent the majority of the views and demands of his/her constituency.
Second, wasted votes is another inherent disadvantage to the First Past The Post. The votes for losing candidates and votes for winning candidates beyond what is required count for nothing.
Third, dividing seats into geographic locations is another constraint. Some clans in Somalia are dispersed across many regions. Designating the clan seat in one geographic location means that candidates from the dominant sub-clan in the designated area will have a comparative advantage over candidates from other sub-clans.
Fourth, this model effectively denies women the prospect of being elected to the parliament, unlike the PR-List. This is the result of the ‘most broadly acceptable’ syndrome. In a male-dominated society like Somalia, the most favorable male candidate by the electorate in a given geographic location will get the best chance to win the seat. In the Proportional Representation – Closed List model, the list is closed, and only parties’ leaders have control over the arrangement of the list and voters have only to choose among parties, not candidates. Therefore, party leaders are compelled to comply with the quota of the women in their list to be accepted by the NIEC. However, that is not the case in the FPTP, where electorates have total freedom in showing preference in marking across next to the name(s) they most favor.
(In)direct (S)ections vs. One Person One Vote Elections
In 2016, the 275 members of the House of the People of Somali Federal Parliament had been (s)elected through indirect elections where over 14,000 people voted for the candidates of their respective clans. Clan elders selected 51 members for each seat – these 51-members voted for the candidates that were competing for each seat.
The ‘FPTP Model’ approved by the House of the People of the Somali Federal Parliament is not entirelya ‘one person, one vote election’ in the full sense. Instead, it retains elements of the indirect election process that took place in 2016, albeit with some important differences. First, candidacy is only open for the clan members. The decision of which clans can compete for which districts will require agreement with clans and Federal Member States. While seats will have geographic locations (districts – not only the capital cities of the Federal Member States), it will not be open for all eligible citizens to compete; clan members will compete for the 275 seats of the House of the People. However, all eligible ‘and registered’ voters in the district can vote for their preferred candidate. This would possibly create a lower voter turnout. It will probably be the clan families of the candidate who will have the motivation to vote for their preferred clan candidate. The fact that the ‘FPTP System’ envisages maintaining the clan power-sharing implies that the proposed model is not fully a universal suffrage election.
Second, when each seat is supposed to be elected separately, the role of the NIEC will be unclear. In the proportional representation (closed list) model, there would be one election day where citizens will go to the polling stations and vote for parties. The proposed FPTP model does not clarify the NIEC’s role and whether state-level electoral committees will be required. The proposed model implies that the election of a few MPs may happen in different geographic locations at once, and there is no clarity on how many electoral bodies will manage the parliamentary elections.
Third, the FPTP system proposes geographic locations for each parliamentary seat. Given the political and security contexts, the details on how MPs representing Somaliland as well as other MPs representing al-Shabaab controlled districts will be elected is still unknown. If special arrangements are made for such seats, it would mean that members of the parliament will be (s)elected through different electoral processes.
Fourth, the First Past The Post model does not clarify how women will be represented in the parliament. Currently, 24% of the two chambers of parliament are women who came through female-reserved clan seats during the 2016 indirect elections. Will the same approach be applied? What happens if some clans refuse to be represented by women for a second term? These are not yet clear in the election model approved by House of the People of Somali Federal Parliament.
Finally, the proposed electoral model does not illustrate how internally displaced people will vote and get representation. Over 2.5 million citizens are internally displaced across the country. How these marginalized communities will get the opportunity to elect and get elected is not defined in the suggested FPTP model.
The Way Forward
Any election model to be adopted in the National Electoral Bill for Somalia should ensure a free and fair election, and all groups of the society must feel that they are fairly represented in the legislature. The electoral law is meant to guide the national elections for the years to come. It should advance a free and fair electoral process.
Additionally, any electoral model to be considered should not be an instrument that entrenches a clan divide and should induce and promote the sense of national unity and electing candidates on the basis of their integrity and programs regardless of their clan lineage. That is the essence of the democratic spirit. Surely, it will set the tone for the people to grasp democratic practices, (e.g. elections) gradually until they become accustomed to them.
In the short term and the 2020/21 political dispensation, a political consensus among all stakeholders is crucial. Political consensus between the incumbent administration and all other stakeholders, without any underestimation to any party, should be worked out to overcome destabilisng stalemates in moving forward and getting any form of elections held, in the scheduled period.
Election Series: Parliamentary and presidential elections are expected to happen in Somalia in late 2020 and early 2021. At Somali Public Agenda, we have begun a series of commentaries and briefs concerning these elections. Each commentary or brief analyses election-related themes. This commentary is the fourth paper of this series. SPA welcomes and very much appreciates comments, feedback and ideas relating to Somalia’s anticipated elections.