Djibouti: Country Heads to the Polls

| February 22, 2013 | 0 Comments

After tomorrow’s vote, Djibouti is likely to have a parliamentary opposition for the first time since independence. But will this seemingly positive step help alleviate Djiboutians’ many woes?

Ismael Omar Guelleh, the 65-year-old president of the tiny nation of Djibouti, has an appalling record of holding free and fair elections. After he succeeded his uncle in 1999 to become only the second leader Djibouti has seen since gaining independence in 1977, he has kept but the thinnest veneer of electoral legitimacy.

In the 2003 legislative elections, the opposition garnered 37.3% of the official vote yet still failed to get a single representative in the 65-seat parliament thanks to Guelleh’s gerrymandered constituencies. In the 2008 elections, Guelleh’s party again took all 65 seats – this time due to an opposition boycott.

His most recent re-election, in 2011, came after he changed the constitution to be allowed to run for a third time; the vote took place without election observers and Guelleh won practically unopposed after the opposition withdrew citing harassment and the unfair nature of the poll.

Tomorrow, Djibouti will once again hold elections in which Guelleh will be looking to reaffirm his grip on power – but this time round could be a little different. After tomorrow’s vote, Djibouti will still have the same government, the same economic maladies, the same poverty, the same food insecurity problems, and the same international alliances. However, for the first time since independence, it will have opposition MPs.

In November 2012, the electoral system was changed so that 13 seats will be elected by proportional representation, while the remaining 52 will be voted in using the peculiar multi-member per constituency first-past-the-post system used previously. This means the opposition are practically guaranteed to have seats. This is no doubt a positive step, but it may not quite be the democratic opening some would like to make out.

International observers

The opposition in Djibouti is predominantly brought together under the Union for National Safety (USN) coalition. Promisingly, the USN has been able to hold rallies which have been attended by thousands of people. This may have taken the regime by surprise.

Asma Farhan, an independent journalist in Djibouti told Think Africa Press that she didn’t “think the regime was expecting such a large turnout”. And the ability to rally and protest may have inhibited some of the government’s typical harassment of the opposition. For example, Daher Ahmed Farah, leader of the Democratic Renewal Party, was arrested when he returned from exile, but was released following protests over his treatment.

This election will also be observed by international monitors. Despite being described as a dictator by many, Guelleh remains little known around the world largely due to the size of his country. The tiny former French colony has fewer than one million citizens and receives far less attention than its more newsworthy neighbours – Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

In fact, if it weren’t for its use by the United States as a regional base for drone strikes and the Camp Lemonier military base, it is unlikely many people outside the Horn of Africa would have heard of President Guelleh.

But nevertheless, both the European Union and African Union have this time round sent election observers. In all likelihood, the EU mission will report back favourably about deepening democracy and successful multiparty elections given the circumstances, whilst of course mentioning several areas for improvement.

But while a promising move, the observer missions are problematic for at least two reasons. Firstly, any veneer of multipartyism at all will be seen as an improvement to outside observers regardless of how surface level it really is; but if power hasn’t really shifted hands, the illusion could not only be empty to the population but could confer a false sense of legitimacy on Djibouti’s rulers that they lack in reality.

Secondly, the missions have had insufficient time on the ground to give a full analysis – the EU observers only arrived last Friday. Not only will they be pushed for time in actually monitoring the elections themselves, but their horizons will be naturally limited to the formalities of the election. They have no time to see beneath the surface.

Media bias?

In fact, as with the presence international observers, other aspects of Djibouti’s elections may not be as positive as they seem at face value.

Many have claimed that the media environment is prejudiced in favour of Guelleh’s Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP), with critical websites being blocked in Djibouti.

Farhan describes it as “a huge censorship campaign by the government”. This biased coverage, or at least the perception of bias on the part of the opposition USN, has prevented Djiboutians from having three evenings of televised political debates between the parties. Scheduled for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, the USN pulled out citing pro-regime bias on the part of the state broadcaster, RTD, which was due to host the debates.

Abdourahman Boreh, a businessman and an opposition presidential candidate in 2011, told Think Africa Press that, “The scheduled TV debate was little more than a half-hearted gesture towards democracy. The USN’s decision to decline participation, thereby refusing to legitimise the event, is to be welcomed.”

On the other hand, the UMP responded to the USN’s withdrawal with fevered criticism, while Djibouti24, one of the country’s most followed social media news sources, told Think Africa Press that, “The USN is only calling for change and has no policy programme to defend”.

Managed democracy

It remains to be seen what effect the media will have on the polls, but even if the opposition do well, the effect could be rather cosmetic.

In the last two years, opposition to Guelleh’s government has grown. First, there was a wave of protests in early 2011, tied to the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa, and an independent victory in municipal elections in Djibouti city in early 2012. This, perhaps coupled with some light prodding by the outside world, led the regime to open up, just a little.

But Guelleh will be hoping that this slight opening up will be just about enough to calm the organised opposition, possible protestors and the outside world, but without allowing any serious challenge to his own rule. Indeed, regardless of whether the opposition succeed within the current strictures, the real effect may be limited.

They will struggle to take enough seats in parliament to have a strong impact, and even if they were to, Djibouti has a strong presidential system of government with the head of state discharging executive and some legislative functions. Whatever happens tomorrow, the power will continue to lie with Guelleh.

Furthermore, a few opposition MPs could also be controlled through Guelleh’s powerful patronage networks and it is speculated that he has a hand in funding candidates and groups outside his own UMP party. This looks all the more plausible when one reads the biographies of many of the senior opposition activists and candidates, many of whom used to be regime loyalists.

Small change, problems grow

The elections are exciting debate and participation on the part of the Djiboutian people. These are the necessary preconditions for more meaningful development. However, if the change fails to go beyond a few opposition MPs it will be illusory.

And an illusion, however pleasant, will not solve the people’s many problems: there are frequent food shortages; Djibouti came 94th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index; well over half the population are unemployed; housing, healthcare and sanitation for the majority is poor; the country comes 165th in the world by the UN’s Human Development Index; and a one man band is trying to keep a firm grip on his and his allies’ control over politics, society and the economy.

A few opposition MPs and some strong rallies is a decent start but it falls far short of the much more fundamental change that Djibouti appears to need. Both the government and the opposition have ideas – the UMP is claiming to be the party of policy in this election, whilst Boreh developed a full policy platform for the 2011 election from which he eventually withdrew – but those in the position to affect change are not the ones with the desire to make a thorough-going critique and draw up the plans necessary to deal with Djibouti’s multiple overlapping problems.

However, even though Guelleh will still hold the reins of power after tomorrow’s vote, the scale of support for the opposition should worry him.

Whilst he may be able to control some of the opposition’s leaders, there appears to be a growing mood for change in some of the country, especially amongst the poor, the young and residents of Balbala, a suburb of Djibouti city, of which opposition support in these elections is indicative. This beginning of a mood shift in segments of the population could prove much more important in the long-term than the election of opposition MPs via a regime sanctioned change in the electoral system.

But if all does go to plan tomorrow, Guelleh’s illusion will have worked, at least in the short term: he will still have power but now with the veneer of a parliamentary opposition; the opposition will have legislators and new lines of patronage; the international community will be able to pat itself on the back and avoid having to question its relationship with what has essentially been a one-party state since independence.

Indeed, many people have much to gain from the electoral illusion. But sadly, this group is unlikely to include most ordinary Djiboutians. After all, you cannot improve freedom, development and wellbeing with illusions alone.

James Schneider is the Editor-in-Chief of Think Africa Press. He read Theology at the University of Oxford and has a particular interest in the study of political economy, patterns of investment, and perspectives from the Global South. Email: Follow him on twitter @schneiderhome.

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