Puntland is the first of Somalia's federal units to attempt transition from clan-based representation to directly-elected government, but poor preparations and last-minute cancellation of local elections in July underline the challenges of reconciling competing clan interests with a democratic constitution.
Cancellation pragmatically averted violence, but societal tensions remain unaddressed. The presidential vote by a clan-selected parliament in January 2014 will thus be fraught. Weak political and judicial institutions will struggle to mediate, risking involvement by partisan arms of the state.
Direct elections are no panacea for reducing the conflict risks, but hard-won incremental progress on the constitution and local democratisation must not be abandoned.
The cancelled ballot's lessons should be instructive for promised elections in the rest of Somalia. Better technical preparations matter, but Puntland's experience shows that donors and other international actors also need to be heedful of local political realities, including support of elites, robustness of institutions and viability of electoral districts.
This case is especially relevant for the projected democratic transition in the rest of Somalia by 2016, to which both the Somalia Federal Government (SFG) and donors, including the UN, are vocally committed.
All four of Puntland's presidents have articulated ambition for constitutional and representative democracy, yet progress has been haphazard.
It took eleven years to pass a draft state constitution, a complex, internally disputed process further delayed by the machinations of political elites torn between shoring up a stable regional base and competing for power in Mogadishu.
The clan role remains paramount, but inter- and intra-clan divisions are deep, and successive proposed reconciliation meetings have yet to take place.
This reflects both the government's attempts to influence the process and fundamental disagreements between clans and sub-clans over representation.
Territorial disputes with the self-declared Republic of Somaliland in the contested borderlands of Sool and Sanaag continue to affect Puntland's fragile clan-consensus, especially the representation of Dhulbahante and Warsangeli clans in the new parliament.
Elections bring these complex territorial and political issues to the fore, exacerbating clan cleavages and providing opportunities for extremists, as surely will be the case in many other parts of Somalia as well.
To avoid a constitutional crisis and ensure a shift toward a more inclusive system of representation, the Puntland state government should:
- make transparent the role and internal processes of the Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation Committee (CRRC) charged with reviewing parliamentary candidates, including consultations with clan elders and candidates on nomination of its members;
- issue a statement confirming that political associations that successfully registered to contest the cancelled 2013 local elections will be allowed to resubmit their registration applications the next time direct elections are scheduled without being subject to further process or fee requirements; and
- commit publicly to reinstitute the local democratisation process, once the January presidential selection is concluded.
The UN, U.S., UK, EU and other key international partners should:
- engage closely in supporting a restarted democratic transition, through both technical assistance and symbolic acts, including public statements of support; and
- promote an inclusive all-Puntland constitutional review process, involving all key stakeholders, to align the federal and Puntland constitutions equitably, emphasising the importance of supporting local election processes.