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.
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.
International Crisis Group