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In the Light of Upcoming Elections, Looking Back the Transition to Direct Elections in Somaliland

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Somaliland transitioned from indirect to direct elections in 2002. Since then, it has successfully conducted two House of Representatives (HoR) elections in 2005 and 2021, three Local Government elections in 2002, 2012, and 2021, and three Presidential elections in 2003, 2010, and 2017.

Before transitioning to direct elections, Somaliland encountered similar obstacles to those currently faced by Somalia. Given the similarities between the two Somali territories, the case of Somaliland provides valuable lessons for Somalia and its Federal Member States on how to design the transition from indirect to direct elections.

Somaliland’s democracy is not flawless. Arguably, it remains in ‘the first stage of multiparty democratization while others believe it has regressed to clan democracy. Some of the noticeable weaknesses include the fact that only three political parties are licensed in Somaliland; the internal procedures of these parties are undemocratic; separate elections are held for the various levels of governance; the independence of key institutions is increasingly compromised; and there is only low representation of women and minority groups.

Somaliland’s transition to direct elections has not been free from challenges. For example, between 2008 and 2009, Somaliland conducted its first biometric (fingerprint) voter registration exercise for parliamentary elections, which was disregarded in 2011 due to data errors.

Factors contributing to Somaliland’s transition to direct elections

Democratic leadership

One reason why Somaliland was able to transition to direct elections is that its political elites had a democratic culture. The findings from our research suggest that the Somaliland elite demonstrated democratic values during the armed struggle and after the ‘liberation of Somaliland’.

This democratic culture is often considered inherent in a pastoral society. The Somaliland National Movement (SNM), which led the ‘liberation’ struggle in Somaliland against the military government, not only fought for democracy but also practiced it. As one of our interviewees stated, ‘Democracy was a principle for the Somaliland National Movement leaders. The SNM held six congress meetings during its ten-year struggle, where a new chairman was elected’. In the decade-long armed struggle, five SNM leaders transferred chairmanship. According to the SNM charter, the movement pledged to return power to civilians as soon as they liberated Somaliland.

In 1993, two years after the liberation of Somaliland, the movement’s leaders returned power to the people as they had promised. President Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, who had previously served as the Prime Minister of Somalia’s last civilian government in 1969, was elected at the Borama grand conference. He replaced Abdirahman Tuur, the last chairman of the SNM and the first President of Somaliland. Many of Somaliland’s political elite, including the leaders of SNM and the founders of the first political parties, attended Sheikh and Amoud schools and knew each other as students. Their educational socialization was a further contributing factor in Somaliland’s post-1991 state building and transitioning to direct elections.

Statehood aspirations

Since the 1990s, Somaliland has presented itself as an independent state aspiring to gain recognition from the international community. These political aspirations have played a role in its exercise of a democratic governance system to showcase its democratic values to the Western world and demonstrate that it deserves recognition as an independent state. Commenting on this, an informant in Garowe said, ‘Somaliland was formed on the logic of statehood, independent from Somalia; they always wanted to show the world that they are different from the rest of Somalia’.

Somaliland sought to use multiparty elections to advance its quest for recognition. ‘Somaliland’s people, especially the dominant Isaq clan, believed that exercising democracy was a precondition for gaining international recognition. Somaliland’s political elite continuously emphasizes stability and democracy to demonstrate that Somaliland is more deserving of recognition than the internationally recognized, but unstable and undemocratic.

The research participants in Hargeisa stressed the role of statehood aspirations in Somaliland’s democratization. The desire for statehood gave Somaliland a clear objective, and both its political elites and the majority of its citizens were in agreement that Somaliland must behave like a state to be recognized by the global community of sovereign states. Consequently, its leaders concentrated their efforts on achieving this goal. As a result, Somaliland’s transition to direct elections is recognized as an ‘organic’ and bottom-up process, initiated and designed by its political class

Reconciliation and security

Somaliland’s reconciliation and peace-building process has been well-documented (Kaplan,

2008; Eubank, 2010; Bradbury, 2014). Over a dozen clan conferences were held in the 1990s to reconcile and build trust between competing clans and sub-clans. Somaliland’s successful transition to direct elections can be attributed to its bottom-up reconciliation. This included resolving election-related disputes using domestic conflict resolution mechanisms, particularly in the early stages of the transition process. During electoral conflicts, various election stakeholders – such as politicians, the election body, and political parties – respected local conflict resolution mechanisms, which were usually initiated by non-state actors such as businesspeople, elders, and religious leaders. For example, there was an election dispute during Somaliland’s first presidential election in 2003, when the opposition candidates challenged the results after losing to the acting President by only 83 votes. Yet, this dispute was resolved internally without the involvement of international actors

The ‘Egal Factor’

During Somaliland’s transition to direct elections, many of the political elite initially opposed the transition and instead advocated for clan-based indirect elections. While these politicians did not necessarily oppose democratization, they suspected that the incumbent President, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, from the dominant clan, was attempting to manipulate the electoral process to maintain his grip on power. Consequently, a stalemate ensued, and President Egal even went so far as to arrest key traditional elders who supported opposition leaders. However, the situation changed in May 2002 when President Egal passed away. His Vice President, Dahir Rayale Kahin, from Awdal region, became the acting President. This change in leadership gave momentum to the transition process, and Somaliland held its first local council elections in December 2002, followed by its first Presidential election in April 2003.

A key informant commented on the role of President Egal’s death in the transition process, saying:

President Egal was a political heavyweight who championed Somaliland’s transition to direct elections. He recognized that he had little chance of being re-elected under the clan-based election system and saw an opportunity in the direct elections. Having participated in the 1969 elections, he knew how to appeal to the voters. The opposition leaders were aware of this and lobbied for the clan-based election system, resulting in a stalemate that persisted until his death in 2002.

A second informant said:

Egal was succeeded by his deputy, who was perceived as less manipulative, new to the office, and from the periphery clans. He faced pressure to transition the country into democracy since the President’s term was ending and there was no possibility of winning elections through a clan conference. Other political actors also recognized that they could easily defeat him. As a result, key political actors became interested in transitioning to direct elections.

President Egal played a pivotal role in facilitating Somaliland’s transition in a number of ways.

Firstly, his experience as a former Prime Minister in Somalia’s civilian government before the military coup in 1969, as well as his participation in previous elections, proved instrumental in designing the transition process. Secondly, he staunchly opposed the clan-based election system and advocated for the implementation of direct elections. Despite tough opposition from other political actors, he was able to persuade the public about the benefits of direct elections. This highlights that political factors can impede the transition process and that, to avoid this, political space must be managed, and concerns held by different stakeholders need to be addressed

Technical aspects

One key lesson that can be learned from the Somaliland case is that conducting direct elections requires addressing both political and technical aspects of the electoral process. From a technical perspective, the democratization process in Somaliland has made gradual progress since 2001, successfully overcoming various practical obstacles. Initially, in 2000, Somaliland established the legal framework for elections, which included a constitution that partly stipulated the electoral processes. The establishment and approval of the constitution through a referendum were necessary prerequisites for conducting direct elections, as the constitution provided the necessary legal framework. Subsequently, the parliament passed several electoral laws, including Law No.14 of Regulation of Political Parties and Associations. Another crucial legal framework that was introduced was the Somaliland Election Management Body (EMB). These legal frameworks were established prior to the first direct elections held in December 2002, which involved the participation of six political associations.

To address the challenge of allocating seats in parliament, Somaliland’s political elites have resorted to using a seat allocation formula that was in place before independence in 1960. However, this approach is not without its flaws, particularly as non-dominant clans feel underrepresented in parliament. Additionally, many of the technical issues that existed in the early years, such as multiple voter registrations, were resolved with the introduction of advanced technologies, such as iris-based biometric voter registration, which was instituted in 2016 (Interpeace, 2016). This has improved the reliability of voter registration by addressing duplicate registrations through fingerprint and facial registration, thereby reducing election irregularities.17 To account for the high levels of illiteracy among citizens, Somaliland introduced an innovative approach in which the names of candidates were presented alongside designated symbols associated with them, such as an icon of a lightbulb, camel or a tortoise, which voters could recognize.

Challenges in Somaliland’s democratization

Somaliland’s democracy has made significant progress, but it is not without flaws. One significant issue is Somaliland’s inability to hold timely elections. Despite the constitution stipulating that election schedules can only be altered in the event of special circumstances, such as widespread conflict or disaster, the elections have repeatedly been postponed without the presence of such circumstances. These delays have had negative consequences, including political disputes and a loss of trust in the democratic system and key institutions such as the high court and Somaliland’s election body, the National Electoral Commission (NEC).

The Somaliland elections have stalled since 2022, partly due to missed election schedules. In October 2022, Somaliland’s upper house, known as the House of Elders or the Guurti, extended the President’s office term by two years and its own office term by five years. With these extensions, the Guurti has turned the President’s five-year office term into a seven-year term and its own six-year term into a twenty year term, beginning in 1997. Local critics have thus labelled it as the ‘house of extensions’.

Two decades ago, Somaliland adopted the three-party system in order to address the issues associated with the fragmented and proliferated clan party system in the 1960s. In this system, the three political associations that receive the highest number of votes in the Local Council elections are promoted to national parties, and they are allowed to contest parliamentary and presidential elections for ten years before new parties can be registered. However, the three-party system has resulted in limited political space and participation, failing to produce parties with a broad national base. Additionally, the parties lack internal democracy, which hinders them from separating their identity and politics from the clan identity and politics of their founders and chairpersons.

Somaliland conducts each election separately. The May 2021 elections were an exception to this, in that the House of Representatives and Local Council elections were combined for the first time. In principle, three elections (Presidential, House of Representatives, and Local Council) – or four if the upper house of Guurti is elected – should take place every five years.

However, due to the high cost of elections and Somaliland’s limited budget, holding these elections separately is not sustainable, and it limits the prospects of democratization. One of the factors considered when scheduling elections is the inability to finance multiple elections in close proximity, which is sometimes used as a justification to postpone elections.

The inclusion of various social groups is a crucial factor in measuring democratization. In Somaliland, the low representation of women and minorities has raised concerns among many

Stakeholders. Partners in democratization have pushed for women and minorities quota systems, but the parliament has rejected the proposal. In the 2021 elections, 28 women ran for elected positions. However, none of the candidates were elected to the parliament.

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