By Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Lawmakers in a volatile region of Somalia elected the federal government's preferred candidate as its leader on Wednesday after a popular former al Shabaab leader was barred from running in the vote seen as test of the country's political progress.
As part of an internationally backed attempt to end decades of lawlessness by spreading power more widely among the multiple clans, states are meant to be more independent of central government, with the authority to select their own leaders.
But any sign that that is being subverted in practice or a sense that a leader is being imposed by stealth by the central government could further stoke instability and violence.
At least 11 people were killed last week in the South West state capital of Baidoa in clashes that erupted following the arrest of Mukhtar Robow, the former Islamist militant leader who had tried to contest in the thrice-delayed poll.
The South West state parliament selected Abdiasis Hassan Mohamed, who has held two national cabinet posts, giving him the necessary two thirds of the vote. State parliaments, not the wider public, vote for regional presidents in Somalia.
Analysts say Mohamed is likely to find it difficult to exert his authority because of his perceived allegiance to the federal government, said Hussein Sheikh-Ali, chairman of the Mogadishu-based think tank Hiraal Institute.
He said the arrest of Robow, a native of South West who was widely expected to win the election, also undermined efforts to end the al Shabaab insurgency.
The federal government could not immediately be reached for comment on the election.
Al Shabaab has been fighting for more than a decade to topple the weak central government and implement strict Islamic law, often sending suicide bombers against civilian targets.
"The attacks on Robow have shredded this election's credibility," said Judd Devermont, Africa director at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Somali authorities backed by Ethiopian troops detained Robow after accusing him of bringing Islamist militants and weapons back to Baidoa, a charge his representatives denied. Many in South West state saw the move as aimed at blocking his candidature.
“Mogadishu tilted terrain in his favour by off-ramping Robow and providing resources to Mohamed. The hard part will be getting him local clan support,” said Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based thinktank.
Similar elections for state leaders are due early next year.
(Writing by Elias Biryabarema; Additional reporting by Hereward Holland in Nairobi; Editing by Alison Williams)