Somaliland votes next week. Its biggest challenges come after the election

Livestock traders chat in front of a row of camels in the livestock market of Hargeisa, the capital of the Somaliland autonomous region. (Paul Schemm for The Washington Post)
Livestock traders chat in front of a row of camels in the livestock market of Hargeisa, the capital of the Somaliland autonomous region. (Paul Schemm for The Washington Post)

On Nov. 13, Somalilanders will vote for a new president. The campaign kicked off in dramatic fashion in October with Somaliland’s first-ever presidential debate shown live on national television, and large campaign rallies.

Here’s what you need to know:

Somaliland has a long history of elections and executive turnover

A former British protectorate, Somaliland enjoyed five days of sovereign independence before uniting with Somalia in 1960. Following a brutal civil war, Somaliland dissolved its union with Somalia in 1991 and continues to exist as an unrecognized de facto state.

With 4 million people and a territory of 68,000 square miles, Somaliland impresses outside observers with its sustained process of electoral democracy and a hybrid blend of traditional and modern state institutions. Somaliland’s stability stands in contrast to the insecurity and poor governance in neighboring Somalia.

And unlike Somalia’s uneven transition record, Somaliland has seen peaceful leadership transitions for decades. The first president, Abdirahman Ahmed Ali Tuur (1991-1993), accepted defeat in an indirect election in 1993. President Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal (1993-2002) then led Somaliland for nearly a decade. Vice President Dahir Riyale Kahin (2002-2010) ascended to the presidency after Egal’s death and remained in office after winning an election in 2003.

Riyale accepted defeat and peacefully transferred power in 2010 to Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud “Silanyo” in accordance with Somaliland’s constitution. Silanyo opted not to seek reelection in 2017, and there are three contenders in the current election.

To be sure, democracy depends on more than regular executive turnover. Recent presidential elections have seen extensive delays. There have been no parliamentary elections since 2005, and journalists and independent media experience arrest and harassment. International election observers found widespread multiple voting during 2012 local council elections but accepted those elections as “largely free and credible” — though they were not fully free and fair.

There have been a series of electoral delays

Somaliland was supposed to hold joint presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015. Severe drought and several political controversies led to multiple postponements. Droughts then forced pastoralists in the country to migrate, which meant that the March 2017 target election date would not be possible after delays in voter registration.

Ultimately, complicated negotiations between the political parties and the National Electoral Commission and an intervention by the upper house of parliament led to the decision to hold the presidential ballot Nov. 13,  and then hold a separate parliamentary poll in April 2019 in combination with local government elections.

The decision to delay both elections, then separate them and further delay the parliamentary elections, greatly angered Somaliland’s Western supporters. One of the opposition candidates has repeatedly expressed concerns over the fairness of the electoral process, yet there is every reason to hope that Somaliland’s presidential elections will be peaceful and ultimately widely accepted. One concern, of course, is the possibility of disruption from the al-Shabab terrorist group.

Somaliland’s system of limiting each political party to campaigning only on certain days of the week has calmed nerves and minimized pre-election violence in past elections. The iris-based biometric voter registration process was largely successful and generally accepted by the electorate. This should obviate many of the problems noted in the 2012 local council elections.

Who is running for president?

Three parties are fielding presidential candidates. Musa Bihi Abdi is the presidential candidate of the ruling Kulmiye Party. Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi “Irro” represents the Waddani Party. Faysal Ali “Warabe” represents the UCID Party. Both UCID and Kulmiye competed in the 2003 and 2010 presidential elections, but this is the first election for the Waddani Party, which earned the right to field a candidate based on its performance in the 2012 local elections.

During the October presidential debate, all three candidates agreed on the need to improve education, combat unemployment and pursue international recognition — no countries have officially recognized Somaliland. Abdi pledged to increase the representation of women in politics and to introduce compulsory national service for high school and university graduates. Irro was emphatic that he would not allow term extensions or delayed elections — and he promised to strengthen the powers of the Central Bank to combat inflation. Warabe promised more government intervention in the economy and to devote 15 percent of the government’s budget to health care.

Somaliland’s most pressing challenges come after the election

Whoever wins the presidential election will inherit a fragile political economy — one that is highly dependent on diaspora remittances and livestock exports in a drought-prone region. The new president will also take over what political scientist Kenneth Menkhaus has termed a “functional failed state” with a few “clusters of competence.” In other words, the state functions, and maintains public order and a degree of economic growth, but has limited government capacity, low levels of institutionalization, and modest budgets.

An overriding concern is that Somaliland has limited state capacity — though the National Election Commission seems to be one area that works. Somaliland’s 2017 budget of $362 million represents about $100 per person of government spending, which is significantly lower than the sub-Saharan Africa average and also that of other conflict states. More than half the budget typically goes to security, leaving little room for education, health, infrastructure or development spending.

To date, this has been accepted practice because Somalilanders are “hostages to peace” who value the maintenance of peace and stability above all else. The human development costs, however, are vast, and popular demands on the government to address these needs are growing.

Members of Somaliland’s Guurti, or upper house, have not been elected or selected since 1997. They have extended their own terms in office, with some members being replaced by immediate offspring.

Scholars now raise questions that Somaliland’s attempt to blend traditional and modern governance may be a “crippled hybrid” in which neither institution functions well. If lower house parliamentary elections are held in 2019, parliamentarians will have served nine years beyond their constitutionally mandated five-year terms of office.

Despite these and other challenges, there are reasons for optimism. With comparatively little international assistance, Somaliland has survived two livestock export bans that decimated its leading industry, the sudden and unexpected death in office of President Egal in 2002 and various electoral crises.

A new president with a fresh electoral mandate offers the prospects of renewed electoral progress, necessary institutional reforms and incremental improvements in the daily lives of its citizens. If all goes to plan, Somaliland’s fifth president in 26 years will be inaugurated Dec. 13 — and assume responsibility for Somaliland’s continued peace and security.

Scott Pegg is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and is serving as an international election observer for Somaliland’s presidential elections.
Michael Walls is senior lecturer in the Development Planning Unit at University College London and is coordinating the international election observer mission for Somaliland’s presidential elections.

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