By Abdi Sheikh and Abdiqani Hassan
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia is unlikely to hold its indirect election for a new president on Monday as planned, provincial officials say, despite last-minute talks between President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and his opponents to arrange the vote.
The country, which has had only limited central government since 1991, is trying to reconstruct itself with the help of the United Nations. It had initially intended to hold its first direct election in more than three decades this year and score a rare victory against chronic instability.
Delays in preparations, and the government’s inability to rein in daily attacks by al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgents, meant Somalia settled instead for plans for an indirect vote, with elders picking lawmakers who would choose a president.
But now, with just days left to arrange the vote, even that plan appears likely to be postponed, although the government has yet to make an official announcement.
The process of choosing the lawmakers – scheduled for December – has still not begun, after the opposition accused the federal government of packing the election commission with presidential allies.
The president met opponents in central Dhusamareb town this week to try to agree on an election plan. In a show of strength by al Shabaab, the town was repeatedly mortared.
Federal officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the status of the election plan, but regional officials said it was now too late for voting to take place on time.
"Everyone knows the election will not take place on Feb. 8 because of President Faarmajo, who does not want a free and fair election," said Abdullahi Ali Hirsi, information minister of Puntland, using an informal name for President Mohamed.
Regional authorities in at least two of Somalia's five federal states, Puntland and Jubbaland, oppose holding the election for now. National and regional forces have clashed in Jubbaland.
Watching keenly on the sidelines to take advantage of any instability is al Shabaab, Islamist militants who have waged years of attacks and levied tolls on trade in a campaign to introduce strict religious law.
"Almost the entire country is still being bombed and taxed by al Shabaab," said Mogadishu shopkeeper Canab Mohammed.
If the election is not held on time, a parliamentary resolution already in place will keep the government going beyond its four year term which expires on Feb. 8.
Omar Mahmood, senior analyst for Somalia at international think-tank International Crisis Group, said a failure to hold the vote would perpetuate a state of mistrust and instability, playing into the hands of the insurgents.
Al Shabaab, keen to show itself as an alternative to the government, has already shown it is willing to exploit the situation. The group killed nine people in a car bomb and gun attack on a hotel in the capital on Sunday.
"Any time there is political instability in Somalia, al Shabaab is the ultimate beneficiary," Mahmood said.
(Additional reporting and writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by William Maclean and Peter Graff)