Somaliland took an important step toward stable democracy with parliamentary and local council polls on 31 May. To keep moving in this direction, authorities and the opposition should build consensus on how to run future voting and how to make the government more inclusive.
What's new? Somaliland's opposition scored a surprise win in long overdue parliamentary and local elections on 31 May 2021. Despite years of delays, the vote went smoothly and was a milestone on Somaliland's road to democratisation. A 3 August vote for the speaker of parliament was similarly straightforward.
Why does it matter? The 31 May vote revealed both the strength of Somaliland's democratic culture and the limits of efforts to include under-represented constituencies in high-level politics. Women are now entirely absent from parliament and certain sub-clans won fewer seats, partly because of dismal turnout in parts of the east.
What should be done? Somaliland's leaders should redouble efforts to include under-represented communities in governing bodies and work to address disaffection in eastern regions through dialogue. The ruling party should steer clear of heavy-handed tactics that marred the pre-electoral period, while watchdog institutions and civil society should publicise any such actions that still occur.
Somaliland's parliamentary and local council elections represented rare good news in the troubled Horn of Africa. Smoothly run and fairly peaceful, the long-delayed 31 May polls handed a surprise loss to the ruling party, which swiftly accepted the results. While the vote was an undeniable success, there were nevertheless significant disappointments. Security forces harassed and detained some opposition candidates during the campaign. Not a single woman won a seat in parliament, contributing to the continued near absence of women from high-level Somaliland politics. Dismal voter turnout in eastern regions appeared to reflect disaffection with authorities in the capital, Hargeisa, while exacerbating the under-representation of eastern sub-clans in parliament.
As they look toward future elections, including the presidential race in 2022, the authorities should consider measures to boost participation of under-represented communities in government and forswear strong-arm tactics against the opposition. To reduce friction and delays, the government should engage now with the opposition to develop consensus rules for managing forthcoming elections. Overall, the successful 31 May election was an important step in Somaliland's state-building and democratisation efforts. The authorities, civil society and key public institutions should strive to consolidate these gains and build broad political agreement on how to make continued progress toward stable, peaceful and inclusive democracy in Somaliland.
II. Bumpy Road to a Smooth Vote
Somaliland proclaimed its independence from the Somali Republic in 1991, after a years-long insurgency led primarily by members of Somaliland's dominant Isaaq clan against Somali dictator Mohamad Siad Barre. In the intervening 30 years, Somaliland has developed many trappings of a state. It has its own civilian administration, armed forces and currency, and it runs its own elections. While no country recognises Somaliland's independence, international partners have encouraged the development of its democratic institutions.
Even if the vote was successful in the end, the path to Somaliland's parliamentary and local elections on 31 May was anything but straightforward. For years, Somaliland's upper House of Elders, known as the Guurti, repeatedly extended the elections timetable for the lower House of Representatives (last voted into office in 2005) and for local councils (last voted into office in 2012), citing vaguely defined "dire circumstances" as the constitutional basis for their decisions. The delays meant that the elected members of these institutions overstayed their five-year terms by eleven and four years, respectively. The Guurti has also served well beyond its six-year mandate granted in the late 1990s.
A dispute among Somaliland's three official political parties further delayed proceedings. The disagreement stemmed from the ruling Kulmiye party's success in the bitterly contested 2017 presidential vote, in which the opposition Waddani party complained of systematic irregularities. Waddani then declared it had no confidence in Somaliland's National Electoral Commission (NEC) and refused to collaborate with this body in future elections. Mediation efforts led by clan elders and civil society actors, as well as active diplomacy by the European Union, eventually helped coax the opposition back to the table. The parties finally resolved the outstanding issues in August 2020, with Waddani dropping an earlier demand that some NEC commissioners stand down so that the parliamentary and local council polls could move forward.
As campaigning kicked off, police actions raised concerns that the government was interfering with the electoral process. In the months leading up to the vote, police detained nearly a dozen candidates from both Waddani and its fellow opposition party, the Justice and Welfare Party (UCID), accusing some of maintaining contact with politicians in Somalia, a treasonous act under Somaliland law. (Others whom authorities detained were not officially charged. ) In holding the opposition figures, the police appeared to contravene legal provisions prohibiting the arrest of candidates during the campaign. A handful of candidates subsequently withdrew, apparently intimidated by the experience. Pressure from civil society, the NEC and the Supreme Court convinced authorities to halt the practice, however, and those detained were released.
In contrast to the bumpy run-up, election day on 31 May came off smoothly. No major security incidents occurred, and international monitors reported few irregularities. Turnout was around 64 per cent of registered voters, a high rate by most standards, although it fell below expectations in Somaliland. The opposition scored a surprising victory, with Waddani picking up 31 seats in the House of Representatives, compared to the ruling Kulmiye party's 30. UCID secured another 21, forming an immediate alliance with Waddani to give the opposition control of the chamber. In the local council votes Kulmiye secured the most seats overall, with 93 of 220, but Waddani and UCID performed strongly there as well, securing a combined 127 positions for their alliance. This showing allowed the opposition to obtain five of the seven key mayoral posts up for grabs, as in Somaliland the local councils vote to select mayors.
III. Surprising Results
The opposition victory was the second since Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991. The first came in 2012, when opposition candidate Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud "Silanyo" unseated incumbent Dahir Riyale Kahin to become president.
After the electoral commission announced the 2021 results, Kulmiye swiftly acknowledged defeat, while an array of international actors applauded the process, casting it as a demonstration of the Somaliland people's commitment to political participation and democratisation. Widespread acceptance of the vote was a much-needed boost for the NEC, which had been forced to defend its impartiality in 2017 amid opposition complaints.
Kulmiye's poor performance surprised observers both inside and outside the party. Many perceive its disappointing showing at the polls as a popular rebuke of its most prominent member, President Muse Bihi Abdi, whose leadership some Somaliland observers have described as increasingly narrow or clan-centric. Shifting alliances within the powerful Isaaq clan, from which Bihi hails, the result of a fraying relationship between two major sub-clans, likely also influenced the outcome.
While most results reflected traditional clan loyalties that serve as the primary organising principle of Somaliland's politics, some voters appeared to reject clan-based jockeying. Somaliland's international partners and local civil society organisations particularly praised the election for ushering in to parliament the first elected member of the minority Gabooye clan - Barkhad Jama Hersi of the Waddani party. Hersi ran on a non-clan platform and relied heavily on social media to circulate his message, a strategy that helped him garner more than twice as many votes as his closest opponent. One observer told Crisis Group that his victory could indicate growing disenchantment with clan politics, at least among a small segment of the electorate in Hargeisa, where most of his votes came from.
Another positive element was the apparently limited involvement of external actors in the campaign. Somaliland has deepened relations with Gulf Arab states in recent years. In 2017, some reports accused external actors of pouring money into political parties, though no substantive proof ever emerged publicly. Elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, competition between Gulf states has sometimes helped fuel regional and domestic disputes, including between Somalia's government and federal member states, with politicians accusing their opponents of seeking financial backing from one monarchy or another. Money may well have played a role in Somaliland's election; indeed, interlocutors told Crisis Group that some candidates spent significant amounts on the campaign trail. Yet no evidence has emerged thus far of substantial foreign support for parties or candidates.
IV. Inclusion Issues
While the election came off smoothly, the outcomes were not as representative of the electorate as might have been hoped.
One very disappointing result was the exclusion of women from parliament. Previously, the lower house had only one female member; now, there will be none. There were thirteen female candidates of the 246 running for 82 seats, and some lost by a narrow margin in a small number of competitive races. The outcome was only marginally more inclusive in the local council elections, where fifteen female candidates won three seats in 220 races. There had been some efforts to produce a more representative outcome. Before the polls, the three political parties agreed that each would present at least six female candidates for parliament (one for each region), but Kulmiye and Waddani both fell short of this mark. President Bihi also waived registration fees for women and minorities in an attempt to level the playing field. Though important, these steps clearly proved insufficient to enhance women's political representation.
The representation of some clans also suffered as a result of dismal turnout in the east, where popular acceptance of rule by Somaliland authorities remains extremely uneven. The eastern parts of the Sool and Sanaag regions, as well as the district of Buhoodle in Togdheer, are primarily inhabited by the Dhulbahante and Warsengeli sub-clans of the Darod clan. They have been subject to a long-running territorial contest between Somaliland and Puntland (a Somali member state).
The Warsengeli sub-clan appeared particularly indifferent to the vote. Few votes were cast in eastern Sanaag, where the Warsengeli reside, resulting in the loss of four parliamentary seats previously held by Warsengeli representatives. The low turnout could be interpreted as the sub-clan's rejection of government efforts to include them in Somaliland's politics. Still, official fears that local militias might use violence or interference to thwart the vote were not borne out, for the most part, and Puntland said little about the proceedings, despite having demanded a halt to voter registration in Sanaag earlier in the electoral cycle.
The news was in some respects less discouraging in the eastern parts of the equally contested Sool region, from where the Dhulbahante hail. Turnout among the Dhulbahante was higher than among the Warsengeli, but their overall representation still dropped from seven to six seats, a setback for Somaliland's attempts to fully incorporate Sool under its political umbrella. During the 2005 parliamentary elections, authorities allocated half of Sool's seats to the Dhulbahante because voting did not take place in major towns like Las Anod, which was then controlled by Puntland. There were no guaranteed allocations this time. While Somaliland has steadily expanded its administrative presence in Sool, Dhulbahante representation in the lower house has paradoxically decreased.
Representatives from the dominant Isaaq sub-clans picked up where the Darod sub-clans lost, causing some potential friction. The Haber Yonis and Haber Jelco of the Isaaq gained four and three seats, respectively. Overall, Isaaq representation in the House of Representatives increased from 57 to 61 seats, or nearly three quarters of the institution. Non-Isaaq clans in the west and east frequently complain about the distribution of seats by region in the House of Representatives, arguing that it under-represents them compared to their size. Many non-Isaaq members even walked out of parliament in protest in the lead-up to the 31 May vote. But authorities ignored demands to reallocate the regional distribution, applying the 2005 election formula instead. The results may thus harden widely held perceptions in Somalia and elsewhere that Somaliland is little more than an Isaaq-dominated clan entity.
V. Navigating Future High-Stakes Votes
The parliamentary and local votes in May kicked off a busy electoral calendar that will culminate in the November 2022 presidential election. The winner-take-all nature of that contest will raise the stakes among Somaliland's political elites, who now have to find ways to forge consensus around rules and procedures for the forthcoming vote while avoiding excessive delays.
Somaliland's elites have historically found ways to build consensus about how to manage elections mainly because they are united by the overriding goal of preserving Somaliland's reputation for peace and stability. They hope that good opinions of Somaliland will lead to international recognition of its statehood claims. Political contestation has increased in recent years, however, with the tensions around the 2017 election particularly exposing the need for continued consensus building to avert a crisis.
More broadly, the parliamentary and local council elections have upset the status quo and forced Kulmiye from its dominant position. All three parties now command support. The 31 May outcome should particularly reinvigorate Waddani, which posted a poor showing in the 2017 presidential election, and offers the newly formed Waddani-UCID alliance an opportunity to control key institutions. Yet party politics in Somaliland are notoriously unstable and fealty to parties is low, mainly because there are few ideological differences that separate them. It remains to be seen whether elected individuals will stick to their parties or ditch their tickets in favour of crossing party lines.
The battle for the pivotal position of House of Representatives speaker, who wields significant influence over forthcoming votes, was emblematic of the fluid nature of Somaliland politics. The vote for speaker was on 3 August. Shortly before the vote, nine members of parliament decamped from UCID to Kulmiye, upsetting post-electoral calculations. A few others subsequently moved from Kulmiye to the opposition. This jockeying aggravated tensions, with opposition leaders Abdirahman Irro and Faisal Warabe accusing the ruling party of engaging in coercive and purportedly corrupt practices in their outreach to opposition members. In the end, the opposition alliance held on to just enough votes to secure the position, bolstering their earlier victory.
The next step is the election of the Guurti, due by 31 May 2022. Parliament's upper house is composed exclusively of Somaliland clan elders. While the institution was instrumental in laying the foundations of Somaliland's governance structure, it is in need of revitalisation, as representatives in the institution have served for more than two decades without a check on their power. The guidelines for the selection of the next Guurti are unclear, as the constitution leaves this subject to future legislation. Navigating this selection process will need to be a priority for the House of Representatives, working with the current Guurti.
The licences for Somaliland's political parties will also expire in 2022. Somaliland awards ten-year licences to operate as a political party to only three organisations at a time. Political associations that want to become parties are subject to a popular vote, with the top three becoming the official parties. In 2002 and 2012, this vote occurred in concert with local council elections, but recent legislation passed by the previous House of Representatives and the current Guurti calls for a separate election to be held just for the political parties in 2022.
Finally, President Bihi is expected to seek a second term in the November 2022 election. The opposition's legislative and local council victories suggest that he needs to change course and govern more inclusively if he wants to prolong his time in office. That said, the previous two Somaliland leaders benefited from term extensions granted by the Guurti that allowed them to serve more than five years. Nervous chatter is already heard saying Bihi may bid for a similar extension, which the newly emboldened opposition would certainly stand against if it manages to consolidate its alliance.
VI. Building Comity
Though an overall success, the parliamentary and local council elections of 31 May have shown the twin challenges that Somaliland's elites face in upholding universal suffrage while promoting representation for women, minority clans and other under-represented constituencies. They also serve as a reminder that the eastern region's commitment to and participation in high-level politics is still an open question. In order to set the stage for further peaceful elections, and for stable and inclusive governance, Somaliland authorities and their international partners should take the following steps.
First, President Bihi should appoint a high-level committee to examine the reasons behind the failure of women to achieve representation in parliament and provide recommendations for the way forward. One proposal would be to reintroduce the idea of a quota for parliament. Although members of parliament have rejected this approach in the past, the 31 May results together with expressions of disappointment from Somaliland's international partners might help to change minds. Political parties could also do more to promote female candidates in their ranks, for example by encouraging party leaders to campaign more vigorously on their behalf.
Secondly, another immediate priority is the political inclusion of non-Isaaq clans. Somaliland's president can ensure continued representation for these groups in Hargeisa by making future appointments in his cabinet and in other high-level positions with under-represented communities in mind. In addition, the coming Guurti cycle can serve as an avenue for boosting non-Isaaq membership in parliament. As selection to the body will be subject to negotiations among Somaliland's clans, political leaders can push for greater inclusion of under-represented communities, including those that suffered losses in the House of Representatives vote.
Thirdly, Somaliland needs to combine this approach with more effective outreach in order to address the apparent political disaffection on the part of the inhabitants of the eastern regions. The guiding principle should be to resolve this problem through dialogue involving Somaliland authorities, locals and others, including Puntland along with Somalia, that claim jurisdiction in the area. Extending Somaliland's military presence as means of advancing the region's political incorporation is likely to continue to produce limited results.
Fourthly, authorities should not repeat the strong-arm tactics that they used against opposition candidates at times during the 2021 campaign. The detention and harassment of these candidates during the campaign were widely viewed as a worrying display of political intolerance and encountered strong domestic opposition. Had they not been curbed, they might have compromised the integrity of the election and been a source of instability. Somaliland's watchdog institutions, including the electoral commission and judiciary, as well as civil society organisations and international partners, need to closely monitor the run-up to the coming votes and be prepared to mobilise together to pressure the government to desist from any form of electoral interference. Maintaining a level playing field is critical if Somaliland is to continue the positive development of its democratic culture.
Finally, the May vote's success was the result of consensus building among elites, and especially the political engagement of Somaliland's three parties. It took time to achieve these goals after the bitter fallout of the 2017 presidential election, but in the end the result was smooth proceedings, including a successful House of Representatives speaker vote in a tense environment. In the same vein, Somaliland's government should consult with all parties to determine mutually acceptable rules of the game for forthcoming votes, in order to avoid delays or last-minute disputes. Authorities should also engage persistently with the new parliament to develop wider agreement on the conduct of elections, given the institution's key role in crafting legislation to govern the conduct of future polls.
Somaliland rightly won praise for completing peaceful parliamentary and local council elections that led to an uncontested win for the opposition at both the central and local levels of government. The results are a refreshing piece of good news in the volatile Horn of Africa, where violence often erupts around big votes and entrenched interests make opposition victories rare. Somaliland's political elites should capitalise on these gains by fostering greater inclusion of under-represented communities and maintaining consensual politics in forthcoming electoral cycles. Both will be key to preserving and reinforcing Somaliland's growing track record of peaceful and democratic elections.
Nairobi/Brussels, 12 August 2021