- Somaliland’s presidential election is currently officially scheduled to take place on 28 March 2017, although a recent agreement, yet to be ratified by the upper house (Guurti), would see that vote delayed to 10 October 2017
- Under that recent, unratified deal, elections for the lower house of Somaliland’s parliament will be held in conjunction with local council elections on 10 October 2018
- Donors are unhappy with repeated delays, expressing the view that “Somaliland’s reputation and credibility will suffer another severe blow from this decision” and refusing to fund any costs arising from the latest delay
Somaliland has progressed a great deal further along the road of electoral democracy than have any of its Somali neighbours. Indeed, the contrast is particularly strong between the self-declared Republic of Somaliland and the Federal Republic of Somalia, of which international diplomats and many southerners continue to insist Somaliland remains a part. Desperate to preserve the impression that Somaliland remains a part of a federal Somalia, sufficient individuals from Somaliland are found, each time there is a southern election, to act as representatives of Somaliland interests. That, in spite of the vociferous rejection of any such representation on the part of the Somaliland government and a still clear majority of Somalilanders.
While Somalia’s latest elections have been mired in controversy, and fell far short of the one person, one vote principle envisaged in 2012, Somaliland’s electoral history is much more positive. Since its unilateral declaration of independence in 1991, the internationally unrecognised country has recorded an impressive list of polls, starting with a 2001 constitutional referendum that was widely seen as confirming its reasserted sovereignty.
But, while successful elections were held in 2002 and 2012 (for local government), 2003 and 2010 (for president), and 2005 (for the lower house of parliament), the process has not always been smooth. Delays to election dates have been frequent, necessitating controversial extensions to the tenures of each elected body.
At present, the lower house of parliament and the presidency have both exceeded their stipulated mandates. New combined elections were originally planned for 2015, then 2016, before being shifted to March 2017. The parliamentary poll was then delayed indefinitely, with 28 March retained as the date for the presidential vote. However, in recent weeks, it has become clear to all concerned that even that is impossible, and at the time of writing, a new deal had been struck pushing the presidential vote to October 2017, and the parliamentary election a further year.
An attempt in 2008-9 to register voters proved hugely controversial. Although the resulting register was used fairly successfully in the 2010 presidential election, it was so tainted by the controversies that had preceded it that it was abandoned immediately afterwards. The registration effort was the first fully comprehensive attempt to compile an electoral roll in Somaliland’s history. During the administration of autocratic President Siad Barre (1969-91), Somalia (including Somaliland at the time) had attempted two nationwide censuses. But neither saw the release of full results, underscoring the sensitivity of such exercises. Counting people is always a fraught exercise, and in the Somali context that is because the resultant register must, by definition, confirm or undermine traditional estimations of the numerical weight of each clan group.
Given that background, a second attempt to register Somaliland voters in 2015-16 has gone surprisingly smoothly, though it too has been beset by delay. Featuring a world-first use of iris scan technology to identify voters, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) has helped ensure its steady, if slow, implementation by guarding registration details extremely closely. There are, however, concerns that once the district-level registration numbers are released, the calm that accompanied registration may rapidly dissipate.
There are also logistical concerns. The start of registration was delayed while technical decisions were taken, then severe drought forced a month-long suspension, and Ramadan took a further month. These delays meant that, by the time the registration process had been completed, there was little time for it to be finalised before a March presidential vote. In the event, that challenge was made more difficult by the severity of drought in parts of the country, playing a significant part in forcing a delay to the election.
In fact, drought has plagued the electoral process for well over a year. The failed rains in western and central Somaliland that had caused registration to be suspended had spread and worsened in the east by the end of 2016, causing many pastoralists to relocate to areas well outside their normal zones – which are also the areas they are expected to register and vote. This caused both the Electoral Commission and politicians to conclude that neither voter card distribution nor voting itself could take place in March as planned. Complicating matters, Ramadan falls unusually early in 2017, running from 27 May to 25 June, and neither an election nor the statutory one-month campaign that precedes it could take place during those weeks. Consequently, a delay of a few weeks quickly looked unviable, with the earliest a delayed election could take place falling in late July or early August 2017.
The ageing incumbent, President Silanyo, was known to strongly favour an early vote. He is not standing himself, and is apparently keen to secure his democratic credentials, declaring that he would not serve ‘even a day longer’ than the end of his extended term in March 2017. Meanwhile, shifts in the political situation continue to make it hard to predict a victor once an election is held. The two largest political parties – Kulmiye, the governing party, and Waddani, the most significant opposition – are both working hard to consolidate clan alliances that would secure sufficient support for victory. A recent agreement has seen Hersi Ali Haji Hassan, a previously senior member of the Kulmiye government, defect to Waddani along with several allies. This seems to have evened the field somewhat, although Waddani confidence apparently remains low, as they came out in strong support of a lengthy delay once negotiations got underway.
In the end, an intensive and sometimes bitter week of talks in Hargeisa, involving political parties, the Electoral Commission and, in the end, the major international donors, arrived at an agreement at the start of the week of 23 January. Presidential elections were to be delayed to 10 October 2017, with lower house parliamentary elections to be held simultaneously with local council polls exactly one year later. Donors were furious, as they had earlier issued an ultimatum that the presidential vote be held within the first half of 2017 if funding was to be maintained as promised.
Voter card distribution is set to start imminently, although it remains unclear how the register will be updated to allow for eligible voters who die or reach voting age between March and October. Donors have also now refused to fund any extra costs arising from the latest delay, so any such arrangements will presumably have to be funded from alternative sources.
The Guurti still needs to approve the agreed dates, and there is some risk that they will choose a longer delay. However, at this point, the agreement marks the strongest commitment to definite dates for elections for local, parliamentary and presidential elections that we have seen for some considerable time.
Michael Walls is a Senior Lecturer at UCL’s Development Planning Unit whose research has focused on the political economy of the Somali Horn of Africa. He has helped co-ordinate international observations of Somaliland elections and voter registration in 2005, 2010, 2012 and 2016. He tweets at @WallsMJ