Political parties are the vehicles carrying the modern government. They are indispensable tools in achieving democracy and are the hallmarks of pluralism. Modern democracy is unthinkable without political parties.

Political parties do many functions. First, they are bridges between people and government. They allow the needs of citizens to be heard by the government. Second, they aggregate the interests of different groups that would otherwise conflict. By pulling together their separate interests into larger organization, political parties tame and calm interest group conflicts.

Third, political parties integrate into the political system groups that had previously been left out such as minorities. Fourth, they are a training ground for political socialization and deepen the political competence of their members. They teach members how to play political games. Fifth, they mobilize voters by campaigning and whipping interests. Finally, in elections, the winning party forms the government and gets political power. The losing parties become the opposition and hold the ruling party accountable.

The Somali Regional State has long been dominated by a single party which established an authoritarian rule that never allowed difference of ideas let alone political parties. Indeed, ESPDP, now SDP, was not even a real party with real principles and political goals. It didn’t even come through the will of the people. Instead, it was ruling machinery simply imposed on the people without their consent.

During the reign of Abdi Iley, it even degenerated into an oppressive regime in the hands of the former president. It was hijacked and stripped off whatever little party characteristics it had. It fought against the identity of the Somali people by undertaking a big Ethiopianization campaign. It placed the letter “E” in front of everything which made the abbreviation of its name bizarrely long (ESPDP).

The party recently rebranded itself by changing its name to Somali Democratic Party (SDP). Whether it has truly reformed and morphed into a real party with principles, values, and development agenda or whether it is old oil in new bottles is to be seen.

Recently, things have changed and in the region. Hopefully, it is in transition towards true democracy, good governance, and better future. New political players are coming to the scene. Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is one of them. It is a formidable political player that can pose stiff competition against SDP. Somali Region Alliance for Justice (SRAJ) is another political player new to the political scene. It is a political movement whose program is not well known, at least to my knowledge. Somali Coalition for Freedom, SCF, is yet another player. It is a coalition between ONLF and a little known political movement called Somali Regional Democratic Alliance (SRDA).

The arrival of new parties to the politics of the region is a significant and welcome development. Democracy and good governance can only flourish in the presence of multiparty system where the playing field is level for all.

As SRS inches towards the 2020 presidential and legislative elections, it is hoped that the political agendas of these parties will crystallize more. The region needs effective parties that can fill the vacuum and save the region from degeneration into clan politics and conflicts. To this end, they can do a lot if they have the will and determination to change the politics of the region. First, they must forward genuine political agendas that can serve them well. It is not enough to claim being political party without practical and effective plans and strategies that can work for both the party and people.

Second, institutionalization and political maturation must be high on their agendas. Democracy and good governance need real and mature institutions which the region lacks. The institutionalization process should start with the parties so that they can build government institutions. Parties need to have guiding principles, rules, regulations and clear political vision that can lead the region to development and democratization. The region needs to move from individualism to institutionalism.

Third, to modernize and transform the political thinking of the people, these parties must clear their programs from any tribal inclinations, rhetoric, or practice. Any involvement in clan politics will lead the region to a dangerous path and animosity along clan lines. The parties must avoid anything that can cause division and polarization at any cost. They must be a force for unity not for division.

Finally, the political parties must be education and orientation channels for the masses. This would help parties become relevant. Talking about the needs of the public, development issues, and touching the pain points will make these parties attractive to voters. Meanwhile, civilized political discourse far from petty clannism would be a precursor for better future whereby the citizens live in peace, harmony, love, cooperation and tolerance. Educating the public must be a priority for the parties.

The people of SRS suffered for so many years. They endured all sorts of hardships including oppression, marginalization, exploitation and human right abuse. They have been second or third class citizens in Ethiopia. Luckily, things have changed now. The dreams of the people, however, will not come true by themselves. Hard work and strategic thinking are the only way to development and democratization.

The decision makers, political parties, as well as the educated and intellectuals must discharge their responsibility of saving the region from anarchy to stability, unity, development, and democracy. This can only happen if they think and cooperate together.

By Mohamed Maqadin