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Somaliland – Expert Briefing

  • Somaliland’s presidential election was to take place in conjunction with election of Members of Parliament, but that combined vote has been delayed a number of times
  • It was scheduled at one stage to happen in March 2017, but drought, coupled with political disagreement, meant that date too was rescheduled and the two elections separated
  • Elections for the lower house of parliament are now scheduled to be held in conjunction with local council elections in April 2019
  • The presidential election is due on 13 November 2017. It will be contested by Muse Bihi (of the incumbent party, Kulmiye), Abdirahman Mohamed Abdillahi “Irro” (Wadani) and Faisal Ali Waraabe (UCID)

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 that remains the case, 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. The leader of the smallest of Somaliland’s three political parties memorably called recently for any Somalilander who “willingly” travels to Mogadishu to be “executed”. Although the comment was presumably not meant to be taken literally, it illustrates the depth of sensitivity to any perceived attempt to bring the two territories close together. In reality, business and family connections between Somaliland and Somalia remain diverse and extensive.

While Somalia’s last elections were 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 separated from the presidential vote, with a new date of 13 November 2017 set for the presidential, while the parliamentary election is now slated for April 2019 in combination with local government elections.

Meanwhile, a voter register has been compiled for use in the November 2017 presidential poll. Voter registration has long proven to be a process beset by controversy. An attempt in 2008-9 to register voters proved hugely divisive. 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. That 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 2015-17 went surprisingly smoothly, though it too experienced a number of delays. 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.  The challenge was exacerbated by the continuing severity of drought in parts of the country.

Featuring a world-first use of iris scan technology to identify voters, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) in the end achieved steady, if slow, implementation by guarding registration details closely and there seems to be an encouragingly high level of confidence in the register in the lead-up to the November election. Indeed, while the number of accusations and counter-accusations is predictably increasing as the November poll draws nearer, it is significant that political parties have generally pulled back from criticisms of the NEC.

The reasons for the most recent changes in the electoral schedule have been complex, and have threatened at times to embroil all actors, including the NEC, in the various controversies. 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 and continued to affect large areas into 2017, causing many pastoralists to relocate to areas outside their normal zones – which are also the areas in which they are expected to register and vote. As just noted, this forced both the NEC and politicians to conclude that neither voter card distribution nor voting itself could take place as planned in time for a March election. Complicating matters, Ramadan fell 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 only a few weeks was obviously unviable, leading to wide speculation about how lengthy a postponement would be necessary.

The ageing incumbent, President Silanyo, was known to strongly favour an early vote. He is not standing again 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. In the event, he was persuaded to continue, with sometimes acrimonious negotiations eventually confirming new dates for presidential and combined parliamentary and local council elections.

An intensive and difficult week of talks in Hargeisa, involving political parties, the NEC 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. In protest, they refused to fund any extra costs arising from the latest delay. Meanwhile, the government, who favoured an early poll, accused the NEC of displaying weakness in failing to insist on the maintenance of the electoral schedule.

In fact, that was not the end of the process as the Guurti – Somaliland’s upper house – was required to confirm the new dates. However, instead of confirming the deal, they announced that they had determined that an even greater delay was necessary, with the presidential election to be held in November 2017 and the combined local council and parliamentary vote pushed into 2019. The NEC eventually accepted that timetable and declared that the presidential date was to be 13th November. Other actors followed suit, effectively confirming that date. Agreement was met with considerable relief, and progress towards a November election has since largely followed the NEC-determined “roadmap” for finalisation of the voter register and preparation for the poll itself.

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