Voting starts in Somalia’s presidential election

Somali soldiers prepare to secure the capital on the eve of presidential elections, at a police academy in Mogadishu, Somalia Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Graft - vote-buying, fraud, intimidation - is the top concern in a nation that Transparency International now rates as the most corrupt in the world and Mogadishu is in lockdown because of the threat of violence by homegrown Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Voting started today in Somalia’s groundbreaking presidential election amid a security lockdown that has closed the capital’s international airport and cleared major streets.

Members of the upper and lower houses of the legislature dropped their ballots into clear boxes in the first round with 21 candidates for president.

Fears of attacks by Islamic extremist group al-Shabab have limited the election to the country’s legislators, who will vote at a heavily guarded former air force base in the capital, Mogadishu. Rounds of voting are expected to narrow down the large field of candidates to a winner. One candidate dropped out today before the voting started.

This Horn of Africa nation is trying to put together its first fully functioning central government in a quarter-century. Years of warlord-led conflict and al-Shabab attacks, along with famine, have left this country of about 12 million people largely shattered.

Somalia’s instability landed it among the seven Muslim-majority countries affected by President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, even though its government has been an increasingly important partner for the U.S. military on counterterrorism efforts.

In a sign of the dangers that remain in the capital, Mogadishu, two mortar rounds fired by suspected extremists late Tuesday hit near the election venue.

While the international community has pushed Somalia to hold this election as a symbol of strength, including the U.S. pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years for political and economic recovery, the vote has been marred by reports of widespread corruption.

The legislators voting today — 275 members of the lower legislative house and 54 senators — were selected by the country’s powerful, intricate network of clans. Weeks ago, a joint statement by the United Nations, the U.S., European Union and others warned of “egregious cases of abuse of the electoral process.”