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A Welcome Chance for a Reset in Somalia

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By Omar Mahmood, Senior Analyst, Somalia

It took sixteen months, but Somalia’s elections have finally concluded – and without major incident. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Omar Mahmood looks at the challenges confronting the new chief executive and suggests some ways of tackling them.

On 23 May, outgoing Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” officially handed over power to his successor Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The ceremony marked the conclusion of Somalia’s longest-ever electoral cycle, which reached its denouement in the presidential contest held on 15 May, more than sixteen months behind schedule. Mohamud, who had previously served as president between 2012 and 2017, made history as the only Somali president in the modern era to win a second, albeit non-consecutive, term.

Somalia’s elections are indirect. Regional states select their senators for the upper house of parliament. The process for the lower house of parliament begins when clan elders and other respected clan members select delegates, who in turn select their parliamentary representatives. Representatives of the two parliamentary houses then combine to vote for the chief executive. If no single candidate garners two thirds of the votes in the first round, the top four contestants move on to a second round, which again, in the absence of a two-thirds majority vote getter, sees the top two candidates proceed to a third round that is decided by simple majority. From a crowded field of over 30 contestants, Mohamud emerged to defeat Farmajo in the decisive third round.

Two factors help explain Mohamud’s second political ascent. First, Farmajo almost certainly suffered from the incumbency disadvantage that besets Somali presidents: no sitting executive has managed to retain office over the past two decades of indirect elections. Somalia’s complex set of political and clan alliances makes it difficult for leaders to satisfy enough parties to secure a second consecutive term. Often, a culture of washamsi (which loosely translates as “ganging up”) plays out, as the opposition coalesces around whoever seems to be the incumbent’s strongest challenger. Candidates need to build alliances and engage in elite deal-making as voting rounds progress, soliciting the support of those who have lost.