UN special envoy James Swan on Wednesday warned that Somalia was approaching "unpredictable territory" should its political leaders not broker an urgent settlement over how to proceed with delayed elections.
Somalia was scheduled to hold indirect parliamentary and presidential elections before February 8 but the process has been derailed by political disagreements between the foreign-backed central government in Mogadishu and its federal states.
Swan said it was "unrealistic" at this point to expect the election to occur on time, with a number of key procedural steps already months behind schedule.
The UN special representative said the focus instead was on breaking the political deadlock, and reaching a consensus that avoids further instability in a fragile country already wracked by clan violence and a deadly Islamist insurgency.
"I think there is concern that going beyond February 8 without a clear agreement takes us into unpredictable territory," he said during a virtual press briefing in Mogadishu on Wednesday.
"We really are seeking to... encourage every opportunity by the Somali leadership to overcome these differences, and take action really in the coming few days, so that answers can be found -- solutions can be found -- well before February 8."
President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known by his nickname Farmajo, and Somalia's five regional leaders on September 17 reached an agreement that abandoned a promised one-person, one-vote ballot but offered a common path forward for elections.
Somalia had set itself the goal of holding its first fully democratic, one-man one-vote election since 1969 -- as opposed to a complex indirect system in which special delegates pick lawmakers who then vote for the president.
- 'Climate of mistrust' -
But disagreements lingered over the multi-stage process.
Critical deadlines -- including for the formation of electoral committees and the selection of upper and lower house members, who in turn choose the president -- came and went.
Swan said he did not know how long the process may take, but that the international community was opposed to a parallel or alternative election process outside what was agreed on September 17.
He said every effort was being made to broker dialogue but the impasse remained and time was running out.
"I think more broadly, sadly, there is a current climate of mistrust among many of Somalia's top political leadership. The challenge to some degree is how to overcome that mistrust at this time," he said.
An alliance of opposition presidential candidates said Wednesday they were committed to finding a political settlement before February 8 but urged the federal government to start "honest negotiations".
They accused Mogadishu of an "inability to engage in or call for a national dialogue with political stakeholders to discuss and reach common ground", and warned against holding partial elections.
The UN had described the pursuit of one-person, one-vote elections as a "historic milestone" on Somalia's path to full democratisation and peace after decades of war and violent instability in the Horn of Africa nation.
But observers had warned that such a goal was unlikely.
The problems include tensions with the states, technical aspects such as voter registration and security challenges posed by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab militant group.
The fragile central government, chaired by Farmajo, controls only a part of Somali territory and relies on an international peacekeeping force to confront a violent insurgency from Al-Shabaab.