The IRI’s Final Report Of Somaliland National Referendum. 97 percent approved the Constitution and only three percent opposed it  The 97 percent approval was attributable in part to a highly emotional desire for a free and independent Somaliland. 

Somaliland National Referendum May 31, 2001

Final Report Of The IRI’s Referendum Monitoring Team 

Issued on July 27, 2001

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Executive Summary  

Overall, it is the opinion of the Initiative and Referendum Institute that the constitutional referendum held on May 31, 2001, in Somaliland was conducted openly, fairly, honestly, and largely in accordance with internationally recognized election procedures.  However, it must be noted that no national election, no matter where in the world, is conducted without allegations and instances of irregularities, mismanagement, human error or fraud.  The referendum in Somaliland is no exception to this rule, but from our observations, the Institute cannot see any basis for questioning the final results of the referendum, or any reason to cast doubt on the integrity of its outcome.

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Given the financial and logistical limitations challenging the Somaliland government – particularly because there have not been any elections in the country for more than 40 years – the Institute’s delegation commends the Somaliland government on the great lengths it went to ensuring a peaceful referendum, free from violence and widespread abuses or fraud.  Based on our observations, the Institute finds that the Somaliland constitutional referendum was conducted in a legitimate and open manner, and in most instances, followed the pre-established election procedures mandated by Somaliland law.

While finding the referendum to have been conducted fairly, the Institute’s delegation stresses that it takes no position – directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly – supporting or opposing the contents of the Somaliland constitution or Somaliland independence and its quest for international recognition.

Though it is the Institute’s official position that the referendum, overall, was conducted fairly, election irregularities and instances of possible fraud should not be overlooked.

As stated earlier in this report, due to the small size of the Institute’s delegation, the team was limited in its ability to observe a large number of polling stations and ballot counting locations.  In the locations that were observed, the Institute did see instances of deviations from election procedures, unexplained irregularities, and to a much lesser extent, minor instances of what could be perceived as fraud.

However, irregularities and procedural deviations were de minimus, and the occurrences of fraud were insignificant and very rare.  Although there is ample room for improvement, the Institute strongly believes that based on observations, these negligible deviations and irregularities did not undermine the integrity or legitimacy of the referendum, and in no way would have changed the overall outcome of the vote.

Most of the irregularities and procedural deviations that were observed are items that could easily be corrected prior to the next national election.  Specifically, polling station workers frequently would pre-stamp ballots, a deviation from the election procedure.  Because of the long lines of voters waiting to vote in the hot sun, there was an understandable effort by polling station workers to hasten the voting registration process, including pre-stamping ballots.  The ballots, however, should have been stamped one at a time, and handed to a voter right before entering the voting booth.

In observing the ballot counting, there were perhaps three or four instances where observers found what appeared to be dozens of ballots “stuffed” into a “Yes” ballot box as if entered all in one instance, instead of votes cast individually.  These instances can be attributed to an over-zealous polling station worker, or an individual swiping a pile of pre-stamped ballots while the polling station worker was not watching.  At most, it is our opinion that this may have affected no more than 50 to 100 votes and that the prestamping of ballots may have contributed to this.

Another irregularity suggested both by the team’s first-hand observations and by our analysis of the results is an inconsistent poll closing time.  Observers witnessed firsthand polling places that stayed open after the designated closing time even when lines had dissipated as well as ballot boxes arriving at counting stations at times that meant they must have left the polling place before 4:00 p.m. – well before polling should have closed.

Further, perusal of the results shows a number of polling places used the number of ballots the polling place was allocated.  We suspect that a significant number of polling places simply stayed open until they ran out of ballots, whether that was earlier or later than the official poll closing time.

Although we have no reason to believe that this significantly impacted the results of the referendum, we would recommend that this problem be avoided in the future by providing all polling places with ample ballots to stay open all day and ensuring that they close according to regulations so as to provide all regions an equal opportunity to vote.

Another problem the team observed was the process of discerning a voter’s age.  Several members of the team noted a number of questionable instances in which some underage Somalilanders may have been allowed to vote.  By speaking with some underage Somalilanders, observers learned that some had illegally voted in the referendum, though this seemed to have occurred without any regularity.

Without birth records or identification, this was not unexpected.  Indeed, there were many instances when polling station workers turned away underage voters.  More importantly, no eligible voters were observed being turned away from voting because of their opposition to the constitution, Somaliland independence, or the administration of President Egal.  There did not appear to be significant numbers of ineligible people voting, and those eligible to vote could do so freely.

Additionally, the team observed only two or three instances of people attempting to vote more than once.  In a few instances, the polling stations were not diligent at painting the backs of hands of people who had voted, due in part to inattention to the procedures and the confusion resulting from long lines of people waiting to vote.  Indeed, the indelible ink was not difficult to wash off.  Still, we do not believe that multiple voting was a problem, and when it occurred, it seems to have been very rare, and in our opinion would not have impacted the results in any significant way.

Another area that should be addressed in future elections is voter privacy.  The degree of privacy for voters in the voting booth varied from polling station to polling station, with some polling stations not having, in our opinion, effective privacy.  In many instances, there was limited privacy because the ballot boxes were not securely shielded from the view of others.

Indeed, on several occasions, it wasn’t that difficult for the observers – and Somalilanders themselves – to see how a voter cast his or her ballot.  Given the overwhelming support for the constitution and independence, a lack of privacy could possibly have prevented someone opposed to the constitution or independence from feeling free to cast a “No” vote for fear of pressure or reprisal.  However, at most of the polling stations, the voting booths were sufficiently curtained or designed to allow for privacy.

In summation, the irregularities discussed in this report, however benign, can sometimes cast doubt on an election, and allow for an appearance of illegitimacy.  However, given that no election has been held in Somaliland in four decades, such irregularities are to be expected and should not, in our opinion, cast doubt on the legitimacy of this election.

More importantly, the referendum was conducted peacefully and without violence.  Except for one instance, observers did not see the government, or individual Somalilanders, pressuring others on how to vote or whether to vote, nor did anyone suppress the opinions and speech of those opposed to the constitution or independence.  In fact, every observer noted that there was an overwhelming sense of joy, passion and excitement for the opportunity to vote and the prospects of independence.  Observers witnessed impromptu singing and dancing outside the polling stations, underscoring that for the vast majority of voters in Somaliland, the referendum – in and of itself – was cause for celebration.

Not only can election irregularities cast doubt on an election, in some cases the actual vote outcome itself can raise questions of the legitimacy of an election.  It is unfortunate, but the reality is that throughout the world when a candidate for office or a ballot question receives near-unanimous approval, the legitimacy of the election is often questioned, and in this election where 97 percent approved the constitution and only three percent opposed it that point is proven.

However, Institute observations and understanding of the election can help place this overwhelming vote in context.  Approximately two-thirds (66 percent) of those eligible voted, while a third did not vote.  With only 600 polling stations in a country the size of Florida, getting to a polling station on a hot day may not have been easy, particularly for nomads who make up a large part of the voting population, and therefore could help account for the 34 percent that did not vote.

More importantly, the 97 percent approval was attributable in part to, in our opinion, to a highly emotional desire for a free and independent Somaliland.  After years of civil war, famine, bombardment, and destruction by the south, the voters’ passion for separating from Somalia was distinctly palpable.  Rather than an endorsement of the various provisions of the constitution, this was a clarion call for independence based on Institute observations.  Every observer was struck by the voters’ passion and enthusiasm for this referendum.

Furthermore, it is possible that those who did not vote were showing their opposition by exercising their right not to vote or go to the polls at all, and there were some anecdotal reports to support this “culture of abstention.”

For example, in the Las Anode district in Sool, a region where, according the election results, there was the most opposition, voter turnout was 31 percent lower than the national average.  In fact, one counting district in Sool recorded that not a single “No” vote was cast, while another station recorded a total of merely 105 votes cast, a fraction of what most other polling stations around the country reported.

Of the 14 polling stations in Las Anode, there were only 7,261 votes cast altogether, further indicating slight voter turnout in this region.  Indeed, in the last election held in Somaliland 40 years ago to ratify the union between Somaliland and Somalia, there was little support for such unification in Somaliland, and only about 100,000 people in Somaliland cast votes in that election, as most boycotted that referendum altogether.  It is possible that many of those who didn’t vote this time were likewise boycotting this referendum.

The opposition, however, was not unified around one issue.  Some were opposed to Somaliland breaking away from Somalia, while others supported Somaliland independence, but were opposed to the current administration of President Egal.  In short, even if one assumes that the 34 percent of the Somaliland eligible voters that did not vote in the referendum were opposed to the Constitution, independence, or the current administration, nonetheless, there was nearly 66 percent of the eligible voters who clearly supported the constitution and independence.

Given the limitations of a ten-person delegation, it cannot be said unequivocally that no other instances of fraud or irregularities occurred.  As noted earlier, no election is conducted without a certain degree of irregularities.  However, based on these observations, the Institute concludes that, on the whole, the constitutional referendum held on May 31, 2001, was conducted fairly, freely, and openly, and largely adhered to the election procedures set down by the Somaliland parliament and in accordance with internationally accepted standards.

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