This is a guest post from our sister project Africa Elects, covering the elections taking place 31 May in Somaliland. As such, the labels and colouring of parties in this article may differ from Europe Elects’ usage.
Somaliland is a paradox. Self-proclaimed independent territory of Somalia in 1991, it is not recognized as sovereign by any UN member country. Its economy is one of the weakest in the world, and public authorities are failing to reduce social inequalities.
Yet, far from the civil war that is hitting neighbouring Somalia, Somaliland has succeeded in pacifying its territory and ensuring several fundamental freedoms, those of the press and of speech in particular. Better still, it has one of the most democratic electoral systems on the African continent; an article published in The Economist even consecrated Somaliland as the ‘strongest democracy in East Africa’. A miracle enabled by an original political system, which may experience its greatest fulfillment with the parliamentary and municipal elections scheduled for May 31, 2021.
A State by Default
The existence of Somaliland is, above all, the result of a failure: the unsuccessful reunification of the Somali peoples into a single state.
During colonial times, the horn of Africa was controlled by two states. The East Coast was dominated by Italy, which established an extremely authoritarian and segregationist power in the region. The North, current Somaliland, was dominated in a more minimalist way by Great Britain.
On June 25, 1960, Italian Somalia gained independence. It was followed, a week later, by British Somalia. Immediately, the two new states united to form one. By this decision, they drew the wrath of international organisations, which are for the most part unfavourable to the questioning of post-colonial borders so as not to complicate the pacification of the continent. But a common political power is quickly established, and Somalia is recognized after a few years as a unified state by the rest of the world.
Yet the project of a reunified Somalia quickly crumbled. The political powers failed to unite two regions divorced by history and which now had different political and social cultures. Conflicts between northern and southern clans were recurrent, against a backdrop of political tensions. The democratisation of the country was a failure, and an authoritarian government was established in 1969.
The spark which put a definitive end to the united Somalia came at the end of the 1970s. The dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who still dreamt of a united territory of the Somali people, began launching attacks on Ethiopia. The war was quickly lost, causing the Greater Somalia project to collapse. The northern clans were vehemently singled out by the South; several massacres happened and looting was recurrent. The dictatorship tolerated these abuses, sometimes even supporting them, and restricted the political powers of the northern clans. After some time, a massive rebellion broke out in the North, thereby inaugurating a civil war.
In 1991, after a decade of conflict, the Somali state, unable to ensure control of its territory, collapsed—without any belligerent succeeding in ensuring its succession. The North takes the opportunity to proclaim its independence on May 18, 1991, on the basis of borders that are relatively similar to those of the former colonial powers.
The region emerges bloodless from the Somali civil conflict, with five per cent of its population having died and more than half of the survivors displaced. The economy had collapsed and a majority of the population did not benefit from any public service. Independence was rejected by a majority of African states, which were still unfavourable to questioning borders and saw the emergence of such a state as a danger to the stability of the region.
In this context, the first months of Somaliland’s existence were just as chaotic as on the eve of independence; but as Somalia got bogged down in a never-ending conflict, the lull returned fairly quickly to the North. In 1993, the political situation was more or less stabilised in Somaliland, at least enough for an indirect presidential election to take place. The new government managed to take control of the territory, and established a partially democratic presidential regime. The latter was reinforced by the establishment of a new democratic constitution in 2000 and by the formal approval of independence by referendum a year later, with 97% voting in favour.
Clans, Parties and Liberal Democracy
Initially rickety, Somalilander democracy seems much more solid today than at the beginning of the century. In 2010 and later in 2017 the country experienced two peaceful presidential alternations in office, an unprecedented achievement for the region. A miracle which is largely based on the establishment of a particular political system: for the historian Gérald Prunier, ‘Somaliland incorporated its old clan conflict management mechanisms into British common law to achieve a new form of democracy’.
Somaliland has a bicameral presidential political system, which combines three electoral modalities :
- The President is elected by universal, single-round ballot for a four-year term.
- The House of Representatives, which will be elected on May 31, is made up of 82 deputies, elected by multi-member proportional representation for a period of five years.
- The House of Elders is a de facto non-elected assembly, made up of traditional tribal leaders and responsible for revising the bills passed by the House of Representatives.
Only three political parties are allowed to participate in presidential and legislative elections at once. These are determined according to the results of the municipal elections, which take place once every ten years: the three parties which receive at least 20% of the vote in every constituency of the country (or, failing that, those which receive the most votes nationwide) enjoy national electoral accreditation. This system aims for parties to unite at the national level and therefore to reduce political tribalism.
Undoubtedly, democratic life in Somaliland is far from ideal. Elections are regularly postponed due to organisational or economic difficulties: the current House of Representatives has not been renewed for sixteen years, and the Chamber of Elders does not have a strict renewal procedure. Additionally, suspicions of corruption regularly hang over elected officials, although these denunciations are less recurrent than in the past. But Somaliland is still moving in the direction of increasing liberal democratisation. The country is even, sometimes, a pioneer in the matter: during the 2017 presidential election, the authorities successfully used an iris recognition biometric system, in order to avoid double votes. A world first.
Social-Liberalism Versus Conservative Socialism
On May 31, the 700,000 Somaliland voters will be invited to elect new deputies and municipal representatives. These elections will be supervised by an independent entity and not by members appointed by the president, a first in the country’s history.
The front runner is Kulmiye (liberal), the party of President Muse Bihi Abi. The movement, which currently has a relative majority of seats in the House of Representatives, has won every national election held since 2005.
Kulmiye is, historically, favourable to the establishment of a market economy (and is moreover an observer of the Liberal International). However, faced with the emergence of private monopolies and growing inequalities, the party has recently shifted its economic program to the left. For example, Kulmiye’s manifesto defends the nationalisation of a few companies in essential sectors of the economy as well as an increase in social assistance, financed by tax increases on large fortunes.
The party is increasingly attacked by the opposition for its lack of commitment to the consolidation of fundamental freedoms and for its reluctance to reform the country’s legal system, largely copied from the Somali model at the country’s independence and slightly transformed since.
The main opposition to Kulmiye is undoubtedly Waddani (*), a populist party that has been emerging in recent years. The party is a big tent for opponents of the government.
Economically, it is much more to the left: it defends the establishment of a universal healthcare system and wants to almost double the resources dedicated to education. It defends public investment as a way to revive economic growth. Institutionally, the party describes itself as the spokesperson for minorities and fundamental freedoms. For example, it made the inclusion of women in society a watchword of its manifesto, defending for instance a quorum of 30% of women in Parliament. The party also supports greater decentralisation.
Nonetheless, Waddani differs from classical left-wing movements in several ways. It largely claims the Islamic moral and cultural heritage, and intends to give it a more important place in the education system and in the establishment of laws. The party also defends an economic and diplomatic policy that is much more nationalist than Kulmiye, and promises to increase funding dedicated to the army.
The third party that is allowed to take part in the legislative election is the UCID (centre-left). The party, an observer member of the Socialist International, defends a traditional social democratic policy. However, it is unlikely that the party will play an important role in this election: it only won four per cent of the vote in the 2017 presidential election. It is even likely that it does not retain its national accreditation, for the benefit of a conservative movement.
Surprisingly, the debates bear little on the objective of international recognition of Somaliland’s independence. In fact, the country is de facto already recognised as such: the Somalilander government has established diplomatic and economic relations with many states, and the Somalian government no longer tries to impose its control on Somaliland. The few advantages that a legal recognition of the country’s sovereignty would provide, such as obtaining loans from the IMF, no longer justify in the eyes of the population the centrality of this issue.
The May 31 elections appear to be a turning point for Somaliland. If the elections are successful functionally, the country’s democracy will be largely consolidated, after fifteen years of electoral stammering. Conversely, a failure would put an end to the country’s chances of international recognition, at least in the short term.
More than Somaliland alone, these polls could be the first line of a new page in East African politics; the country’s two big neighbours, Ethiopia and Somalia, are expected to renew their legislatures too later this year, again after several postponements. A joint success of these three elections, although unlikely at the present time, could revitalise hopes for democratisation in the region, dried up by the difficulties of recent years.