EDITORIAL: Puntland 1st direct local election masked irregularities we must deal with
EDITORIAL | When the Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission (TPEC) organized the first-ever one-person-one-vote elections last week, it was a historic moment. Suddenly, in the history of Puntland, the people were directly exercising their mandate. Such an opportunity hadn’t been seen in all of Somalia’s five federal states since 1969, the last time Somalis had directly voted for their leaders.
And everyone from the federal government to donors was cheering this achievement. A joint statement released by International Partners of Somalia said they welcomed the “peaceful completion” of voting and the announcement of preliminary results. They said the people of Puntland had led the way towards instituting a system of universal suffrage in Somalia.
But this celebration now looks like it peppered over a dangerous set of irregularities, which could return Somalia to turmoil if ignored. We have established that the election that saw long queues of enthusiastic Puntlanders in fact ignored the very basic requirement of universal suffrage: One vote per person.
Some polling stations recorded returning voters and people were still campaigning on the day of the ballot, using money to sway the supposed undecided voters. In fact, the turnout wasn’t exactly as high as portrayed. More than 40,000 people have registered in Qardho, Ufeyn, and Eyl where the vote was held, but only 28,854 cast their votes with 3,366 becoming invalid [40%].
Why? The problems were systemic. Given Somalia’s poor infrastructure, what motivation was there for rural folk to travel long distances to a polling station to vote? And when there was interest, there had been no awareness for those people on how to choose their leaders. This gap was left to political parties, who did the ferrying to their advantage. In short, politicians ferried only their perceived voters or bribed those who had not decided to toe the line.
This gap should have been filled by either using mobile polling stations, setting up polling booths in rural areas, or simply authorizing the transportation of voters through a legal channel, say through TPEC itself.
This simply shows that while it is true that the vote had elicited enthusiasm among the people in Puntland, it was far from free and fair. The piloting districts, Qardho, Eyl, and Ufeyn had shown an unexpectedly low turnout, reflecting the desire of Somalis to engage directly in electing their leaders.
When the vote results came out, Somalia’s partners were all over each other cheering the event, turning a blind eye to the reality on the ground and the complaints of the majority of the political associations, which boycotted the election result.
“We look forward to the completion of additional voter registration and the roll-out of state-wide local government elections in Puntland in 2022,” the partners said.
“The partners commend all stakeholders for their role in the process, noting, in particular, the effective collaboration between the Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission (TPEC), the political associations and civil society organizations.”
The trial elections simply reflected that universal suffrage was possible in Somalia. But the cheering may have masked deeper problems, which could haunt Somalia in the future unless nipped in the bud now. Certainly, an international community that is ready to fund elections must be wary of throwing money at dirty games. There must be accountability.
In the October 25 elections, there wasn’t transparency. Neither was their accountability. As soon as the October 25 results were in, a coalition of political parties raised a number of issues. The Puntland Political Forum (PPF), which brings together Horseed, Run, Mustaqbal, Ifiye, and Caddalad parties, said this popular vote was not free and fair at all.
Vote-buying, bribery, importation of voters as well as the use of underage people to vote were noted, the group said.
While we don’t expect elections anywhere on earth to be perfect, the cheering by international partners, without pointing out these anomalies, could be a false start. Elections, as tradition has shown, are only deemed to be free and fair if winners can be verified to have achieved their feat through a transparent procedure. There was no point setting up laws if violators could be declared winners without an audit.
Puntland, the most stable, and most secure of the five federal states, has in its more than two decades of history set up systems that have worked, laws that are civil and regular elections that have seen the consistent and legal transfer of power. To hold universal suffrage needed encouragement. But to look the other way when violations happen could only cement negative views on universal suffrage. The boycott by the parties was certainly something the TPEC should consider as a blot on its impressive step.
As more districts prepare for elections, the TPEC and Puntland authorities must not get carried away by the praises. They must look into correcting mistakes seen in the first three districts. Voters must be those registered in the area, there must be an open and transparent checklist to weed out minors or ‘foreigners’ and every party must be allowed to sell its policies without being outcompeted with bribery.
It will certainly help if partners like the African Union, European Union, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, US, Turkey, and others append their cheers with calls for respect to the law and demand that the funds they give to be used to rebuild Somalia’s political space to that of transparency. That is when Puntland, and Somalis, in general, will actually enjoy the fruits of direct voting.
Since the first pilot democratic election in Puntland did not take place in a transparent manner, international donors should not be in a hurry to support an unreliable system that could damage the political stability in Somalia's oldest Federal State.
A table illustrating the real votes recorded in Eyl, Ufeyn, and Qardho election.