By: Rafaela Kieto
On 24 February 2023, the Republic of Djibouti held elections for the National Assembly, which were contested by two political parties, Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP) and Union for Democracy and Justice (UDJ. The UMP won 89.23% of the votes and 58 of the 65 parliamentary seats. The UDJ won the remaining votes and secured 7 seats in the National Assembly. In addition to the UMP and UDJ, two additional parties were interested in participating in the parliamentary elections - the Alliance of Movements for Democratic Alternation (AMAD) and the Center of Unified Democrats (CDU). However, the AMAD and CDU were rejected due to dual nationality and non-payment of deposit.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the African Union (AU) Election Observation Mission were invited to observe the election. The election occurred without significant disturbances, and the AU congratulated Djibouti for effective and peaceful elections. Although the elections were peaceful and lauded by the OIC and AU, they were marked by the boycott of some major opposition parties, the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development (MRD) and the Republican Alliance for Democracy (ARD). The opposition called the elections a sham. They said elections in Djibouti are not free, not transparent and not democratic.
In recent years, Djibouti has experienced economic challenges, rising unemployment and political instability. Reports state that opposition parties are silenced and face constant threats, sometimes they are forced to disband. For example, the Mouvement pour le Renouveau Démocratique et le Développement (MRD) was dissolved in 2008 by presidential decree and has not yet been reinstated despite demands from the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Political parties and others are not allowed to participate in political activities freely. In addition, other activists from opposition parties have been arrested in what has been reported as an attempt to intimidate those who wish to show their discontent. Security services use surveillance and effectively silence human rights defenders. There are reports of human rights and freedoms restrictions on political opposition and civil society. Elections are not said to be free. There is a climate of fear of being arbitrarily arrested—intimidation against the population and opposition.
In early 2023, mass protests resulted in the arrests of about 300 opposition and civil society leaders. The opposition, civil society, and human rights groups call for President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh to step down or seek a third term. The Djiboutian parliament had previously approved a constitutional amendment removing the two-term limit.
Djibouti has a unicameral parliament, the National Assembly, with 65 members directly elected to serve five-year terms. The President, the head of State, is directly elected in up to two rounds of voting and serves a five-year term. The Prime Minister, appointed by the President, is the Head of Government.
The Constitution of Djibouti guarantees equality before the law and the right to vote. In 2018, Djibouti adopted a law establishing a quota of women elected to the National Assembly at not less than 25%. Moreover, the law states that the proportion of either female or male candidates on the party’s list f candidates must be 25% of the seats to be filled. The law increased the quota for women from at least 10% to at least 25%.
Women’s Political Participation
In the 2023 elections, 23.08% (15 out of 65) of the members elected were women. Thus the share of women elected to the National Assembly remained the same as in the previous election and, for a second election in a row, fell short of the 25% quota set. While the 2023 elections did not increase the number of women elected to the National Assembly, there was a slight increase in female candidates from 25% in 2018 to 26.21% in 2023.
In this year’s election, Housseina Abdoulkader Ali, 28 years old, became the youngest member elected to the National Assembly. She serves on the Finance, General Economy and Planning Committee.
The National Assembly has taken steps to increase women’s political participation and representation. In 2019, the Parliament set up two causes devoted to women to strengthen women's role in decision-making: the Women's Caucus and the Gender Caucus. Dedicated gender parliamentary caravans will connect the caucuses with the female electorate. Other activities included strengthening female parliamentarians' skills in communication, leadership and government oversight and launching the "Parliamentary Caravans on Violence against Women and Girls."
Djibouti has also adopted laws and policy initiatives strengthening women’s rights and gender equality. Concerning violence against women, in 2020, the National Assembly adopted legislation protecting, preventing and caring for women and children who are victims of violence. FGM is also prohibited and criminalised. In the economic sphere, discrimination based on gender and sexual harassment in employment.
The UMP won the 2023 elections, with 89.23% of the votes scrutinised and electing 58 of the 65 parliamentary seats, with the remaining seats being held by the UDJ. Similar to the previous election, 15 (23.08%) were elected to the National Assembly, thus falling short of the 25% quota set. Opposition parties boycotted the 2023 elections due to allegations of lack of transparency and democratic plurality.
Although Djiboutian women are underrepresented in political life, efforts are underway in the National Assembly to increase and strengthen female participation and representation in the legislature and connect with female voters. Additionally, civil society organisations have been working to raise awareness about the importance of women's political participation and to provide women with the skills and resources they need to engage in politics.