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Somaliland's democratic lesson

15 Oct, 2012 -
Open Democracy by: PETER HURST - An unsung and unrecognised east African statelet has just held a democratic vote that impresses election observer Peter Hurst

The first notable feature of Hargeisa, the Somaliland capital, is the vast number of blue plastic bags littering the fields outside the airport. They are the by-product of the Somalis’ pastime of chewing qat, a mild stimulant plant. Roadside vendors sell bunches for $1.50 a bag and customers then discard the packaging. It is one of the smaller problems Somaliland has to deal with on its way to becoming a functioning state.

The drive into Hargeisa town centre reveals slightly larger ones. The three sets of traffic lights, looking out of place beside the ragged roads, don’t work even in the long afternoon rush hour, as there is no electricity.

Somaliland, an autonomous region to the north of Somalia, proclaimed itself independent in 1991 after three years of civil war to the south had resulted in the collapse of any functioning state. It has since built institutions and tried to deal with crime and unemployment – all without regressing into dictatorship or anarchy.

Peter Hurst was monitoring the election in Somaliland with the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR). He has also monitored elections in the Balkans and Eurasia. All views are his own.

Somaliland can now claim to have another feature of a functioning and democratic state, in sharp contrast to Somalia’s capital Mogadishu: on 29 September 2005 it held parliamentary elections, the first in Somalia since before the 1969 coup that brought the dictator Siad Barre to power. Around 800,000 voters went to the country’s 985 polling-stations to elect 82 members of parliament from the 246 candidates on offer. It was the culmination of a gradual process: after a 2001 constitutional referendum, 2002 municipal elections, and a 2003 presidential election, Somaliland will now have a legislature to balance the leadership of the president, Dahir Riyale Kahin.

There is a two-week delay between the vote and the announcement of the results. The outcome could be a surprise. The president’s Democratic United National Party (Udub) is facing a serious challenge from its main rival Kulmiye (Solidarity). If Kulmiye fails to win outright, it may form a majority coalition with the Justice & Welfare Party (Ucid). The first reported results, based on a counting of 105 ballot-boxes in Hargeisa, indicate its likelihood: Kulmiye won 40.71% of the votes, Ucid 29%, and Udub 30.25%. An opposition coalition would make Somaliland one of the few African countries where representatives of different parties lead the executive and legislature.

At the same time, all parties are new to the political field and the differences between them are not readily apparent. Most Somalilanders who are asked say they will vote for the president’s party to ensure stability, or for a particular candidate because of clan allegiance. No one mentions policies.

The world’s blind eye

Somaliland’s limited resources are evident in the election’s rudimentary facilities. It is equally striking – although the point is contested by analysts alleging a “rigged” election – that poverty has not destroyed quality of engagement. The main anomaly has been the lack of a voter register. Somaliland’s investment in its institutions of state has not stretched to a census, any form of citizen registration, or the issuing of passports.

One result is that a Somalilander can vote in any polling station in the country, whether or not he or she lives in or has visited the area. The consequences include a large incidence of attempted multiple voting, though the citizens whose previously inked finger shows up under the ultra-violet light monitor do not look too upset. The good spirits extend to the many disappointed underage voters (wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the logos 2 Pac, 50 Cents and Falluja ) who are turned away from polling-places.

In the region of Odweyne, to the east of Hargeisa, ballots and electoral material were not distributed until early evening on the day before the election. Soon after, heavy rain turned the dirt road to mud and left election officials stuck. In some case, material did not reach its destination until election-day itself, restricting the time available for voting.

Another major issue has been the lack of a secret ballot. High levels of illiteracy have meant that many voters cannot read the ballot-paper and are not confident using pens to mark their “X”. Their only option is to announce their choice to the local chairperson, who marks the paper, folds it up and hands it to the voter to place in the ballot-box.

Despite these problems, the overriding impression to this observer was that Somaliland’s electoral process has been transparent, with little fraudulent intent, and full of a great enthusiasm for democracy. In an Odweyne polling-station, the first person in the queue was a 70-year-old man who had walked to the station by foot and had been waiting outside since 7pm the previous evening. Everywhere the queues were long and the voters appeared happy.

The problems surrounding the election must be seen in light of the fact that Somaliland has not received anything like the financial or logistical support given to the elections in Afghanistan or Iraq; neither does it have the same levels of disruption through violence. The international community has been of little help in Somaliland’s reconstruction: it still denies Somaliland international recognition, and instead supports a peace process for Somalia which has survived repeated setbacks but is yet to achieve definitive results.

True, the US issued a statement welcoming the election and praising its conduct, and the possibility of some recognition of Somaliland’s existence and integrity cannot be discounted. But it would take only a small fraction of the money invested in Afghanistan and Iraq to improve Somaliland’s democratic record. This small east African land has, after all, succeeded through its own efforts in cultivating the very democratic spirit that the US and its partners have struggled to induce in the middle east. Will they now pay attention to Somaliland?


About the author
Peter Hurst has monitored elections in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union.

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