Puntland’s presidential election, scheduled for January, threatens to exacerbate clan tensions and polarise the population. To keep the regional state on the path of democratisation, deep investment from local, national and international actors will be crucial.
In its latest briefing, Somalia: Puntland’s Punted Polls, the International Crisis Group examines the attempt to reconcile clan interests with a democratic constitution for a regional administration whose development is important for establishing a degree of stability in a country that has not had much effective government for a generation. Hopes were once high that Puntland could be an example to Somalia’s other regions, but the democratic transition process has been mostly suspended due to increasing clan grievances and concerns over the weakness of political and judicial institutions charged with overseeing elections. If the election of the president by parliament next month is disputed, tensions could easily escalate to violence.
The briefing’s major findings and recommendations are: •Violent fallout from a disputed presidential election would have implications for the rest of Somalia, including neighbouring Somaliland, not least an increase in inter-clan tensions and opportunities for the extremist group Al-Shabaab to strengthen its foothold in north-east Somalia.
•Elections have always strained the clan consensus underwriting Puntland’s relative stability. Even after fifteen years, Puntland’s institutions remain weak and have failed to mediate the democratisation process. In the context of January’s presidential election, it is crucial to ensure the safety of all candidates and their freedom to campaign.
•For Somalia as a whole, the Puntland experience demonstrates that instituting party-based democracy will be a contested process at every step, especially at the local (clan) level. Particular attention should be paid to the establishment of political parties. In Puntland as in the rest of Somalia, traditional clan authorities remain unconvinced of the benefits of party-based democracy.
•Until the July crisis, when local elections were cancelled, the international community – particularly the UN, U.S., UK and EU – failed to recognise the importance of Puntland’s democratisation process for all Somalia. It needs now to promote an all-Puntland constitutional review process and support the restart of the democratic transition via both technical and symbolic assistance.
“Puntland has shown that democratisation is not just a technical process or a panacea for reducing internal conflict. Donors and other international actors need to be heedful of local political realities, including support of elites, robustness of institutions and viability of electoral districts, before giving support to an electoral process”, says Cedric Barnes, Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director. “This is especially relevant for the projected democratic transition in the rest of Somalia by 2016”.
“Despite the violence, risks and weak institutional framework, it is important that the democratic transition continue, especially at a local level”, says Comfort Ero, Crisis Group’s Africa Program Director. “Calling off the local elections in July was the right call, but has left many feeling excluded and without a direct voice, especially those from marginalised clans and the young. And it is these constituencies that are most likely to be attracted by radical Islamist groups like Al-Shabaab”.