DJIBOUTI Jan 30 – Somali lawmakers were to elect a new president on Friday, with the current premier and the Islamist opposition leader clear frontrunners in the battle to take the helm of the war-ravaged country.
The newly-enlarged parliament comprising the more moderate wing of the Islamist-led opposition was due to vote in Djibouti on a replacement for Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who resigned last month.
A long list of politicians have entered the fray but Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein and Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who heads the pro-peace branch of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), are the frontrunners.
"My first priority is to bring peace to Somalia and I will serve the nation to the best of my ability," Sheikh Sharif said at a lunch in Djibouti on Thursday, in an eleventh-hour bid to muster more support for his candidacy.
The cleric, in his 40s, is also the head of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which briefly controlled much of Somalia in 2006 before being ousted by an Ethiopian military invasion.
Ethiopian troops moved into neighbouring Somalia to oust what they saw as an extremist Islamic movement on its doorstep and prop up a weak Somali transitional federal government.
But after two years of deadly guerrilla war, the Ethiopians have pulled out with little to speak for, more radical groups have blossomed and Sheikh Sharif is seen by many as the candidate of the political centre.
According to observers in Djibouti, his main opponent in the election is Hussein, who emerged victorious from his latest tussle with former president Yusuf but whose TFG is weaker than ever.
"My administration will be the continuation of the peace process… The election is part of my efforts to end the civil war in a peaceful way," he told AFP on Thursday.
Hussein is seen as one of the main factors that helped the UN-sponsored reconciliation process get off the ground, eventually clinching the commitment of a large faction of the ARS in 2008.
"If I am elected, I will bring all the opposition groups to the peace process so that Somalia stops being a battleground," he said.
Loved by the international community for his humanitarian background and integrity, his critics say he has little sway over his own clan and lacks the charisma to yank Somalia out of 18 years of civil conflict.
While ARS MPs should vote massively for Sheikh Sharif, Hussein’s TFG camp is fractured, with some allies of former president Yusuf throwing their weight behind the opposition frontrunner.
"We will vote for him without any reservation. His election will be the era of unity," said Abdi Irro, an MP with close ties to Yusuf.
Former speaker and senior ARS official Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden also defended Sheikh Sharif’s presidential bid as the best way to lead the Horn of Africa country out of the cycle of violence.
"He is one of the most prominent figures in Somalia. Sheikh Sharif is the best choice to overcome the current crisis," he told lawmakers on Thursday.
If the election is completed on Friday, the new president will be sworn in on Saturday, in time to represent his country at the African Union heads of state summit in Addis Ababa later this weekend.
Former prime minister Ali Mohamed Gedi is also among the candidates in Friday’s vote.
Somalia has had no effective central authority since the 1991 ouster of former president Mohamed Siad Barre touched off a bloody cycle of clashes between rival factions.
Whoever wins the presidential election will face the daunting task of taming the Shebab, a hardline offshoot of the ICU, which rejects the peace process and controls several key towns.