March 26, 1969. This is the date the fourth and last parliamentary elections were held in Somalia before the country fell in the grip of a military regime. The first parliamentary elections were held in 1956, the second in 1959 and the third in 1964.
Whereas twenty-one political parties had contested the parliamentary elections of 1964, this time sixty-four parties, representing sixty-four clans and sub-clans, most of which created just before the poll and all seeking a slice of the national pie, entered the field, with 2,214 candidates for the 123 available seats. Most of the organizations contending for the election as political parties were not in reality parties in the true sense of the word, but rather temporary clan groupings, devoid of any clear political programme, formed solely for the purpose of putting up candidates with the ultimate aim of joining the ruling party after the elections.
As one author eloquently puts it, “Politics in the Horn, like the politics of industrial societies, consist of competing among groups for influence in the management of public affairs. The distinction lies in the character of the groups. In developed industrial societies the competing groups are made of individuals united by common economic or social interests or perhaps a common ideology. Among the Somalis they are determined by common ancestry.”
The country was divided into 48 electoral districts, out of which five had no contest at all, since only the ruling party had registered and presented lists of candidates who were automatically proclaimed elected before the counting of the ballots. The five ‘uncontested’ electoral districts were Aden Yaval, Bender Beila, Bur Hakaba, Jerriban and Zeila, all won by the ruling party. The electoral law had introduced two new innovations with respect to 1964:(a) the system of proportional representation was modified by assigning each constituency an electoral quotient determined by dividing the total number of votes cast by the number of seats assigned to each constituency. Consequently, only parties which reached the electoral quotient were allocated seats. (b) public servants, civilians or otherwise, who wished to stand as candidates were ineligible from running for the election unless they resigned from government employment at least 180 days before the date of voting “on the basis of the existing tradition in former Somaliland.”
By contrast, in the southern region, by prevailing tradition civil servants were allowed to stand as candidates on the assumption that they represented the best educated and most qualified members of the population and they would be able to improve the quality of the legislature. Accordingly, a number of civil servants had been elected to the National Assembly in 1959 and 1964, and had been placed on leave without pay for the duration of their elective office.
One obvious flaw of the electoral law was the lack of electoral certificates which allowed voters to cast their votes in the electoral district where they found themselves on the day of voting. Illiterate villagers and town dwellers had an equal say in choosing their candidates. This shortcoming encouraged irregular movements of the population from district to district. The security deposit for the election of MPs was raised from Sh.So1,000 in 1964 to Sh.So 5,000, to be forfeited and credited to State revenue in case the list failed to obtain the necessary votes for the election of at least one deputy. To prevent voters casting their ballot more than once, their left hand was marked with indelible ink before voting, a familiar system that had been in use since 1959.
In a highly polarized political environment, few expected the build-up to the elections to be anything other than violent. Official reports said that about 25 people died during the elections, but it is understood that this was a somewhat conservative estimation. Those who fell victims to the prevailing political violence included two civil servants involved in the election process: Abdi Omar and Hassan Omar assassinated in Baidoa and Merca respectively, a candidate standing as an MP, M. Sede, assassinated in El Bur and a paramount Chief, Ismail Bogor, brutally murdered in Iskushuban.
Most of the troubles arose because of complicated divisions of the territory into tribal boundaries, inaugurated during the UN trusteeship regime, with no attempt made after independence to rectify the situation. Alula, Iskushuban, Galkayo, Dusa Mareb, Merca, and Lugh Ferrandi, to mention just a few, had been flashpoints for years during election times. In anticipation of the general elections, the government appointed new regional governors and district commissioners.
The regional authorities, particularly those hailing from the south, were notorious for their expertise in election fraud. “The new appointees were widely seen as mercenaries who were appointed on ad hoc basis to rig the elections for the candidate favoured by the government”, comments a well-informed analyst.
The final results of the elections were released on April 7, 1969 by the Central Electoral Office, chaired by the President of the Appeal Court, Judge Girolamo Marotta-Gigli. The SYL party won the elections, securing 73 of the 123 of the seats in Parliament; the remaining 50 seats went to a host of other political parties.
Somalis had grown used to electoral irregularities since the time of the United Nations trusteeship regime, but were still shocked by the scale of the vote rigging in 1969, the likes of which had never been experienced in the past. Whatever Somali voters may have wanted, it was axiomatic that the SYL did not lose elections. So, gross irregularities in the 1969 election should come as no surprise. The SYL was an extraordinarily powerful, hard to defeat money machine.
Within a few weeks from the election, all but one of the new MPs who were not members of the SYL had joined the ruling party: The most well-known among the defectors were: Omar Arteh, Dr. Elmi Duale, Bashir Sheikh Hussein, Michael Mariano, Jama Ganni, Abdullahi M. Hirad, Omar Lulaie, Abdullahi Isnania, Hared Farah, Ismail Dualeh, Ahmed Adda Mugne, Ismail Giumale, Mohamed Rajis and Mohamoud Mohamed Osman. All were attracted by the advantages of being inside rather than outside the ruling party. Such transmigrations from one party to the ruling party were not without historical precedent in Somali politics.
Similar instances of ‘crossing the floor’ were also experienced in the 1964 general elections, but not to the scale experienced in 1969, which annulled parliamentary opposition. The single opposition member who resisted the temptation to join the ruling party was Abdirazak Haji Hussein, who became, as one author put it, “a rare example in the history of democracy.”
By Mohammed Trunji