Somalia's parliament is choosing a new transitional government president to replace Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who resigned under pressure last month. The selection process is being watched closely at African Union headquarters, where the new Somali leader is expected to make his debut at Sunday's opening of a continental summit.
As the Somali parliament began its secret balloting process Friday in Djibouti, several of the 15 candidates withdrew from the race, making it look more like a contest between Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein and the moderate Islamist leader Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed.
Somali politicians and diplomats said Sheik Sharif appears to have an advantage because parliament doubled in size earlier this week to include him and a large group of his supporters.
But observers following the vote at African Union headquarters cautioned that predictions are difficult, given Somalia's shifting clan alliances, which are largely incomprehensible to outsiders.
Whoever emerges as the Horn of Africa nation's next leader faces the monumental task of rebuilding a failed state that has been without any effective administration for nearly two decades. Islamist extremists have made a push to control territory in the wake of the recent pullout of Ethiopian troops, which have been propping up the U.N.-backed transitional government for the past two years.
The government, with its 10,000 strong army and 3,500 African Union AMISOM peacekeepers, controls little more than a few blocks in the capital, Mogadishu. The election is being held in Djibouti because even the provisional seat of parliament in Baidoa fell to Islamists several days ago.
The government of Djibouti and the United Nations have been shepherding the process of organizing a viable political process in Somalia. Djibouti's foreign minister Mamoud Ali Yusuf told VOA the election of a new president is just the beginning of a daunting exercise that will require international support, but must be led by Somalis.
"Once the Somali state collapsed, everything vanished or disappeared, and the whole chaos prevailing in Somalia is because of the lack of sense of responsibility of the Somalis themselves. If we as the regional and international community don't help them to get together and put aside their differences and try to think on the national interest of Somalia, if we don't help them, they won't do it by themselves. The whole international community has been trying for so long to impose certain vision of what Somalia could be, the Somali state, but that vision has not been working. But what we need now is a vision of which Somalis themselves are part and parcel in. and that vision is I think now taking shape," he said.
The most immediate challenge facing the new Somali leadership is security. Djibouti's foreign minister Ali Yusuf said the priority will be extending the government's authority in Mogadishu.
"We know that the extremists can always take advantage of vacuum of security that may exist because of the absence of any organized governmental troops in all the regions of Somalia. But if Mogadishu is stabilized with a joint security force, a joint Somali security force with the coordination of AMIOSOM troops I think it would be possible to have that stable environment for Mogadishu. The priority is Mogadishu. Once Mogadishu is stabilized, the state institutions start functioning, the rest of the country would follow. That's the priority," he said.
The new president is likely to start off his term in office in a big way. He is expected to fly immediately to African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa to attend a summit beginning Sunday.
AU leaders are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Djibouti meetings. AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said a smooth transition of power in the transitional government will go a long way toward persuading other African countries to contribute troops to AMISOM, which is at less than half its authorized strength of 8,000.