Staring at trucks festooned with campaign signs winding their way through the streets of the capital, Hawa Mahamoud was disappointed that she would not have a chance to directly vote for her candidate for president in November.
“I don’t like the way we are going to vote,” said the mother of five who owns a hotel business on the outskirts of the capital. “We should be given the opportunity to elect the president of our choice rather [than] using parliamentarians to impose leaders on us.”
It’s hard enough trying to organize a democratic election in a country wracked by poverty and a grinding guerrilla war with one of the world’s most vicious terrorist groups. Organizing a vote that accurately reflects the will of the Somali people is adding an extra level of complexity to the task.
The elections will not be a one-person, one-vote affair. Authorities have ruled out direct polling because of security concerns about al-Shabab, the al Qaeda-allied Islamist militant group that controls much of southern Somalia and has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in Kenya.
Saying they want to expose the illegitimacy of Somalia’s fledgling government, al-Shabab leaders have threatened to kill candidates and campaigners and attack polling sites in a bid to disrupt the voting.
“I see this as a golden opportunity for al-Shabab to showcase its might,” said Nazlin Umar Rajput, a political analyst and chairwoman of the National Muslim Council of Kenya. “Somalia does not have the capacity to hold free and fair elections. I don’t foresee a peaceful election. Somalia is very unstable. Somalia is still in civil war.”
The Somali government hopes to introduce universal direct suffrage by 2020, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia. In the meantime, the country employs an East African version of indirect democracy that lasts from late October through mid-November.
First, 135 traditional clan elders appoint electoral colleges. The colleges tap more than 14,000 delegates, who then elect members of parliament via secret ballot. Regional legislatures also elect a senate. Some seats are reserved for women and youths.
“I think there are a lot of people who think they are deeply disadvantaged by this election, and they would be right,” Michael Keating, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general in Somalia, told the international affairs journal Foreign Policy last month. He said, though, that the convoluted system represents a step forward for the country.
The elders’ appointments and presidential ballot were scheduled for August, but officials postponed them because of administrative mishaps and fears of an al-Shabab strike. Now, Somali officials say, the delegates will choose a president on Nov. 30.
The electoral system was outlined in Somalia’s 2012 constitution. Ms. Mohamoud, 38, said the process is failing. “This country has suffered a lot because of bad leadership,” she said. “Our leaders have failed to tackle corruption and terrorism. This is because we are not given the chance to elect the leader of our choice.”
But the flawed system might be the best practical option as long as Somalis living under al-Shabab can’t vote, said Ms. Rajput. “Al-Shabab already controls south Somalia and several towns,” she said. “Are these regions going to be incorporated into the national elections grid or not? And how? So it is impossible to even remotely contemplate a free and fair election.”
Stepping up the terror campaign
In one measure of the shadow terrorism has cast over the vote, al-Shabab jihadis have increased their attacks on civilian and military targets as the elders prepare to announce their picks. On Oct. 1, the militants detonated a car packed with explosives near a prison operated by the country’s intelligence and security agency. Four died, and five were injured, according to a Somali government statement.
Last month, al-Shabab took credit for a car bomb that killed a Somali general and four of his guards. In August, a truck bomb blew up outside the Somali presidential palace and a popular hotel in Mogadishu, killing at least 15, authorities said. Earlier that month, a pair of suicide car bombings struck a government building, killing 23 people.
The mission organized by the African Union in Somalia has vowed to help the presidential elections succeed. With backing from the United Nations, the African Union has stationed around 22,000 troops and police in the country to intimidate al-Shabab and prevent attacks.
“Successful electoral processes will not only be a victory for Somalia but also the pan-African body and the international community,” said Francisco Madeira, special representative of the chairperson of the African Union Commission for Somalia.
Despite the indirect nature of the vote, many Somalis are still campaigning vigorously to drum up support for candidates among tribal elders and delegates. Camps of supporters have put up newly designed campaign billboards throughout Mogadishu, Kismayo and other cities.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a onetime university professor first elected in September 2012, is running for re-election. His prime minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, is also interested in the job.
The president’s aides deny charges that security forces have harassed opposition candidates, saying Mr. Mohamud’s rivals are raising such concerns to undercut the legitimacy of the result. Mr. Sharmarke told Foreign Policy that the complex voting pattern reflects the popular will in Somalia the way that the Iowa caucuses reflect political sentiment in the U.S.
“We don’t have the primaries. Everybody doesn’t vote,” he said. “It’s just a caucus reflecting the larger society that is voting.”
Somalis are following the race’s twists and turns.
“It’s a very competitive election, but I know the president will win,” said Hassan Abubakar, 28, a Mohamud supporter. “We are happy and behind him. He has been going around to campaign, and a majority of people supports him.”
Although Mr. Mohamud has persuaded the U.S., Britain, China and other countries to open embassies in Mogadishu — a major breakthrough considering the lawlessness in the capital in the 1990s — critics charge that he has failed to tackle corruption. In 2013, lawmakers almost impeached him over a corruption scandal involving the repatriation of overseas Somali state assets frozen at the outset of the civil war in 1991.
Mr. Sharmarke is taking advantage of the president’s failures, promising the country that he will fight corruption and terrorism if elected. He also plans to empower Somali women and children by emphasizing education and loans for women to run their own enterprises.
“We need a leader who can fight corruption and create employment for the youths,” said Hussein Adan, a teacher and Sharmarke supporter in the capital. “This country wants a leader who can end terrorism and promote education to all Somalis.”
Hotelier Mohamud believed that a popular vote would represent the will of people and return peace to the country by giving conservative Muslims who support al-Shabab an opportunity to express themselves other than through the jihadis.
“If we want a peaceful country, then we should have a popular vote,” she said. “The leader will represent the will of the people, and you will never see terrorists in this country.”