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An Open Letter: Minister of Interior, Democratisation and Federal Affairs and Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission (TPEC)

By Abdiwahid A. Jama  and Abdullahi S. Osman 
Puntland Diaspora members 

Dear Minister and TPEC, 

We, members of the Puntland diaspora, commend the decision of the new administration to initiate the democratisation programme in Puntland and nominate the Transitional Puntland Election Commission (TPEC) in its first year in office. We also support and complement the tremendous efforts of the Ministry of Interior Democratisation and Federal Affairs and the TPEC and all stakeholders working so hard to move forward the democratisation process in the state. 

However, while consultations were extensive, allowing contributions from a significant cross-section of society, we, nevertheless, think some areas in the process and the intended outcomes need to be re-examined in more detail. We feel further deliberations involving prospective political associations, lawmakers and the wider public are urgently required. 

One noticeable aspect in the evolving democratisation project in Puntland is the limit on the envisaged number of parties qualifying as permanent political parties to contest the planned parliamentary and presidential elections. Limiting the number of parties to only three, in particular, may not achieve the inauguration of a comprehensive democratisation process in Puntland state and society. 

On the contrary, it could harm the prospect of replacing the current clan-based selection method with a system grounded in widespread popular participation throughout the state. The ability to form a political party or compete in elections is not only part of the fundamental values of democracy but also encourages civic duty strengthening the very interdependence between political parties and democratic engagement allowing citizens to vote for parties that closely match their ideals, interests, values and beliefs. It will be a bitter disappointment and a missed opportunity if the plan falls short of delivering its worthy aims due to minor and easily amendable procedural details. 

In a nutshell, there is no logical, political or legal argument for narrowing the state-wide political parties to only three. Nor is there any justification in permanently closing the door on the rights of citizens to set up new political entities in step with future changes in the political and social environment. 

It is worth mentioning that the three-parties only principle was pioneered and implemented in Somaliland by late president Mr Mohamed Ibrahim Egal. Mr Egal’s dismay with the excessively large number of political parties in the 1960s when he was prime minister of Somalia is well documented. The then parliament, however, hindered his efforts to introduce the necessary corrective steps to deal with the problem to his undoubted frustration.

Nonetheless, years after the introduction of the three-parties-only system in Somaliland, increasing voices are now calling for its reform to open it up and widen the options available to the voting public. Downright critics even blame the policy for stoking up social discord as parties are identified with the leader’s clan or a narrowly defined tribal coalition. 

Puntland on the face of it appears to have adopted that practice without a thorough examination of its merits nor considering its potential drawbacks. Copying and pasting Somaliland’s electoral model without proper scrutiny betrays the dearth of creativity and vision from the part of the previous administrations compounded by their lack of sincerity and determination. 

The two polar opposite concepts of either having countless and unmanageable number of parties or limiting choice is not, however, sustainable and must, therefore, be abandoned. We are not advocating for the proliferation of smaller parties with a potential risk of extremist blocs emerging, leading to societal divisions, rampant corruption, patronage, and unstable and ineffective governments. On the contrary, we, believe there is an alternative middle ground to avoid a large number of spurious political parties without weakening the appeal for an inclusive and ambitious democratic programme. 

We present here some ideas to take into account in this regard:

1. Rules governing internal party structures  The undoing of the political system in the 1960s was indeed the lack of regulations governing internal party structures and the setting of minimum standards for starting political associations to contest elections. It is, therefore, possible to devise a legal and administrative framework for weeding out false groupings through strict rules and regulations stipulated in a comprehensive Party law. Robust organisational measures, as well as transparent and legally enforceable internal policies and procedures, could add a layer of guarantee against abuse within prospective political associations. 

2. Compulsory non-refundable fees to contest seats.  Further terms could be added as a prerequisite for registering any organisation as a genuine political party if they are operating in most of the regions not only fielding candidates but also paying compulsory non-refundable fees to contest every seat. 

3. Minimum seats or percentage of the votes requirement  A threshold can be set for parties to win a percentage of the votes cast (e.g. 5% or more) or a number of seats in order to qualify as a proper political party. This requirement prevents the burgeoning of bogus and extremist parties without disenfranchising legitimate associations. 

The list of measures outlined here is not exhaustive, and further provisions could be included, allowing only authentic groups with popular support to get to the finishing line and enjoy the status and privilege of a state-wide political party. Artificially restricting the number of parties without proper consideration of the consequences could be counterproductive, posing potential security challenges as well as sowing the seeds of mistrust and social tension. The potential for causing confusion and social dissonance instead of cementing community cohesion and harmony cannot, therefore, be dismissed out of hand if the opportunity for political involvement and choice is arbitrarily curtailed.

The introduction of elections must, consequently, go hand in hand with creating a peaceful and stable environment in Puntland. There are formidable security hurdles already in the state not only in the form of entrenched militant activity but also the vast quantities of arms in civilian hands in Puntland which is behind the periodic intercommunal clashes. The combination of these factors has, in our view, the capacity not only to create fertile ground for tension but also apathy towards the democratisation initiative as a whole.

Although all previous administrations promised to introduce a system allowing the general public to choose their leaders through the ballot box they nevertheless failed to deliver. Puntland is, therefore, on the threshold of a new era of democracy and broader political participation. The steps taken so far by the current leadership and the new electoral commission are encouraging indicating determination and resolve to realise this long-cherished dream of the people. They, consequently, have the authority and mandate to look at all aspects of the democratisation agenda and carry out essential reforms as they see fit not only to successfully transition Puntland from a traditional system of governance to a full-blown democracy but also secure an achievement that eluded all their predecessors.

The current TPEC is provisional and will be replaced with a permanent one in due course. Their role is, nonetheless, crucial setting the scene for the success of elections in Puntland. A lot, therefore, depends on how they approach the task assigned to them and the level of vision and creativity they demonstrate in discharging their responsibilities. On the other hand, their reputation and that of the government will sustain significant damages if the project falters or worse leads to instability.

This open letter aims to highlight the pitfalls of curbing the choice available to the public to elect their representatives. Allowing a fairly reasonable number of political parties representing all sections of society would energise and inspire voters, providing them with real alternatives in terms of policy direction and talent.

We, therefore, urge the Ministry of Interior, Democratisation and Federal Affairs and the electoral commission as the state organs entrusted with the stewardship of the election process to take a holistic view and act as the driving force for a real and meaningful change in Puntland. 

Abdiwahid A. Jama  and Abdullahi S. Osman 
Email: [email protected]

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