Somalia's National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC) has announced plans to register millions of Somalis to participate in what would be the country's first popular elections in more than a half-century.
NIEC Chairperson Halima Ismail Ibrahim told VOA that the commission would start registering voters in March 2020 in a campaign that could last months to reach voters in Mogadishu and the regions.
She said hundreds of registration centers would be open to biometrically register voters.
"At minimum, we want to register 2 [million] to 3 million Somalis," Ibrahim said in an interview this week.
The Somali population is estimated at 12 million, but realistically only half can be reached and registered, according to Ibrahim.
"Many people are living outside the country. Many are in refugee camps. Somaliland is separate. There are areas where [militant group] al-Shabab is present where significant number of people live," she said.
Registering voters to directly elect their parliament representatives would be a major departure from recent elections in the country. In the 2017 election, 14,000 electoral delegates chose the current parliament, while in the 2012 election only 135 clan elders were given the power to select the MPs.
Ibrahim said foreign companies would come to Somalia early next year to meet election officials and discuss how the registration process can be technically achieved.
Ibrahim noted that before any registration began, however, parliament should approve the draft election bill now being considered. She also said the federal government and regions needed to resolve ongoing differences.
For more than two years, the federal government has been in conflict with federal member states over the distribution of powers and the role of government in regional elections.
The federal government recently imposed air travel restrictions on one of the main regional administrations, Jubbaland, after its leader, Ahmed Mohamed Islam, rejected government efforts to play a prominent role in the region's August leadership elections, in which he was re-elected.
The federal government has argued it is constitutionally mandated to "facilitate" regional elections. In Southwest state last year, the government did not just facilitate — it prevented one candidate, former al-Shabab deputy leader Mukhtar Robow, from running.
The draft election bill would give the public, for the first time in over 50 years, the chance to directly elect representatives. The bill endorses the proportional representation system, which empowers the majority party or largest coalition in parliament to choose the president.
Even if the parliament approves the election bill as written, though, it would violate the provisional constitution, said the deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament, Abshir Mohamed Ahmed. He said the constitution holds that the two houses of parliament — Lower (275 seats) and Upper (54) — choose the president.
The constitution also does not recognize the proportional representation system.
Former Chief Justice Ibrahim Idle Suleiman said the parliament first must amend the constitution before approving the election bill, which will mean a delay.
"Every bill must not contradict the constitution," he said. "They [lawmakers] have to first make changes to the constitution and especially in articles governing the election of the president."
Another contentious article in the bill relates to the delay of elections if serious circumstances arise — including widespread insecurity, natural disasters, diseases, droughts and "technical problems." That term could be interpreted in different and competing ways, Somali law experts said.
Ibrahim said the maximum time that an election could be delayed is six months. An election is expected to take place in early 2021 before the president's term expires on Feb. 8.
"The commission is the one that can propose to the parliament a delay for technical issues for two months, and again for an additional four months," she said.
Feuds and bribery
Experts believe the biggest challenges to elections taking place on time are the ongoing political differences between the stakeholders, in particular the feud between federal and regional leaders.
Deputy Speaker Ahmed said the two sides needed to take confidence-building steps. He said both sides needed to follow the constitution on their respective responsibilities and work together on issues that are not well-defined in the constitution.
"They need to adopt an intergovernmental relationship act that defines their discussions and cooperation," he said.
The bill also fails to address one of the key challenges that marred past elections — bribery and payment of large sums to regional lawmakers in return for votes.
A report by the U.N. Somalia Panel of Experts alleged that 82 Southwest MPs were transported to Mogadishu in early November 2018 to receive an initial payment of approximately $5,000 each.
Interviews conducted by the panel also confirmed the MPs were offered a further $20,000 to $30,000 to support specific candidates, the report said.
Suleiman said either the election bill or the political parities law must criminalize dirty money and bribery.