The political system has never been in good shape in Djibouti. At the point of independence in 1977 Djibouti started with a rudimentary constitutional basis, which was extended by the passing of a new constitution in 1992. However, this constitution is short, and whilst broadly favourable, not much more than a set of principles.
Subsequent primary and organic legislation therefore defined the political system, much of it in likely contradiction to the principles set out in the constitution.
The result is a heavily centralised system dominated by Presidential decrees which have not been subjected to critical assessment and scrutiny before being promulgated.
Thus Djibouti has is a Presidential system that lacks checks and balances – a sure fire way to ensure poor governance and economic mismanagement.
There were a few attempts at reforms during the years, but abandoned. After the peace agreement signed with the FRUD in 2001 the aim was to have a multi-party system. This has existed in theory only, as was subsequently evident.
Outcomes reflect this. In the democratic system, less that 25% of the population were registered to vote in the 2005 Presidential election, and much on this register was erroneous. The President obtained 100% of the vote, and the turnout of 70% regarded by many as fictional. The electoral system resulted in 100% of seats in the National Assembly going to government coalition parties, with not one member being self-declared ‘in loyal opposition’.
The election and voting system itself looks like a carte blanche to make a one party state. The extreme ‘winner takes all’ voting system, the absence of enforcement against intimidation, the lack of diaspora voting, laws against free assembly, media control, and a restrictive system for registering and regulating political parties – all combine to squeeze out any whiff of pluralism and balance in the system.
Implementing political reforms take time. They key aim in changing legislation to implement reforms, however, is to ensure that the legal frame and enforcement resources reflect properly the principles espoused in the constitution.
Legislative change is needed at the foundations of the state – such as defining the relationship between the Presidency, the government headed by the Prime Minister, and the legal system, between political office and public servants, the government and the military and between central and sub-central government.
The electoral system needs refining so that in the current multi-member constituencies representatives are sent to the National Assembly broadly in proportion to the percentage of votes each party receives (above a threshold). This will ensure a measure of pluralism in the National Assembly.
Proper District-level or sub-district elections can be held on a one constituency, one member elected basis. This is important in directing the local priorities for infrastructure development, in dire need.
A political system mass subsistence-level poverty and with no right of free assembly, can lead to dangerous levels of pent-up dissatisfaction and violence, especially when harshly enforced. It is essential that business groups and trade Unions be allowed to have public and private meetings, in order to undertake their advocacy and provide services to members. The business community supports this.
Such reforms are necessary to avert a potential collapse in civil order.
Getting things done
The first priority is to achieve a peaceful and democratic transition of power. The international community has a vital role to play in demanding and monitoring pluralistic, free and fair elections in the country, to open the doors for further reform.