The 2021 parliamentary and local council elections were significant for several reasons.
By Scott Pegg and Michael Walls
Somaliland has been open and receptive to international election observers since its constitutional or independence referendum in 2001. International election observation reports have been issued on its 2010 presidential election, its 2012 local council elections, and its 2017 presidential election.
In May 2021, we traveled to Somaliland as part of the “Limited International Election Observation Mission” which was funded by the British foreign office but was independent from it and international in nature. We were invited to Somaliland as guests of the National Electoral Commission (NEC).
In contrast to 2017, when we had 30 teams of two observers each, in 2021 due to COVID-19 and other factors, we only had six teams of two observers each. Observers came from a variety of different countries including Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Zambia.
Although it remains entirely unrecognized by the international community, Somaliland is not new to electoral democracy. Somaliland had a constitutional referendum in 2001 that was widely perceived as a referendum on its independence from Somalia. It has also held three previous direct presidential elections (2003, 2010, 2017), two previous local council elections (2002, 2012), and one previous parliamentary election (2005). As we have written elsewhere, Somaliland’s democracy “juxtaposes striking successes with recurrent and persistent problems.”
The 2021 parliamentary and local council elections were significant for several reasons. First, Somaliland’s members of parliament had served 11 years beyond the ostensible five-year mandate they secured in 2005. Like several other de facto states, Somaliland has a presidentially dominated system of government, but the parliament’s lack of a reasonably current democratic mandate greatly weakened it and damaged its perceived legitimacy.
Second, this was the first time Somaliland had conducted two elections (lower house of parliament and local council) at the same time. This introduced additional complexities into everything from campaigning and voter education to printing, delivering, and physically counting the ballots.
Finally, these were the largest elections ever held in Somaliland with 1.065 million registered voters, 2,709 polling stations, 30,000+ poll workers, and 552 candidates contesting 220 local council seats and 246 candidates contesting 82 parliamentary seats. Alas, out of 798 total candidates, only 28 (3.5%) were women (down from 5.91% women candidates in the 2012 local council elections), even though women almost certainly accounted for more than 50% of the total votes cast in these elections. These elections thus failed to address the critique that Somaliland largely exists as “a male democracy.”
Somaliland has a constitutionally mandated limit of three political parties; a restriction designed to promote cross-clan alliances. The established principle holds that those three parties should be open to competition from new entrants (legally titled ‘political associations’) who are to be permitted to contest local council elections every 10 years (nominally meaning every two terms).
With the last local elections having taken place in 2012, that 10-year mandate is due to expire in 2022, adding an incentive for the current three parties to get these local council elections out of the way in 2021, effectively consolidating their status as parties for at least another five years until the next local level elections are due.
This election was contested by candidates from the Kulmiye (Peace, Unity and Development Party), UCID (For Justice and Development Party) and Waddani (Somaliland National Party) Parties. The entire country was plastered with campaign ads. To assist illiterate voters, each local council candidate also had a number (101, 203, 305, etc.) and each parliamentary candidate had a symbol (camel, tortoise, lightbulb, etc.).
To limit the potential for electoral violence or misunderstandings, Somaliland traditionally designates specific days for each party to the campaign. To limit the number of mass rallies during the time of COVID-19, this campaign limited each party to just two official campaign days. Parties and candidates generally supported the reduced number of campaigning days as it helped minimize their campaign costs in what was otherwise an extremely expensive election campaign.
The election represented an enormous financial and logistical burden for a small, unrecognized de facto state like Somaliland. For these elections, Somaliland significantly increased their own financial contribution, by some accounts, providing approximately 70% of the total budget with additional international assistance from Taiwan and from several EU countries, and the UK. To minimize the potential for interference by local clan elders, Somaliland continued its past practice of largely employing university students as poll workers and sending them to different regions of the country outside of their home regions.
In Burao, for example, many poll workers were students from the University of Hargeisa. Each polling station typically has four workers. As it has done in past elections, Somaliland tended to deploy female university students to major urban centers, splitting male university students between urban and rural areas. Thus, in major cities, it is not unusual to find polling stations staffed largely or entirely by women while in rural areas all-male polling staff are far more common.
On election day, polls opened at 7:00 AM but our day as international election observers started at 6:00 AM. As was the case in 2017, the first thing you notice when approaching your opening polling station is hundreds of people lined up outside long before the polls open. In Somaliland, a traditional Islamic country, male and female voters often queue in separate lines.
Before the polls open, international observers are supposed to verify whether all necessary materials are in place at the polling station and verify that the ballot boxes are empty and then sealed properly. It was also then our first chance to see the actual ballot papers used. At most polling stations, voters cast ballots from 7:00 AM – 6:00 PM. A few polling stations closed for lunch and some paused voting for evening prayer time, neither of which they were supposed to do. To accommodate all the voters in line before 6:00 PM, as is legally required, some polling stations ended up staying open until 7:30 PM or later.
In the 25 polling stations we personally visited, a few minor problems were apparent but nothing that indicated fraud or malfeasance. Perhaps the most serious issue one of our authors witnessed was an unsealed voting box at one of the stations observed. The election officials at this station were aware that this was a serious problem and had called the NEC regional headquarters to request that seals be brought out for this box. The box was also publicly displayed in the middle of the polling station in full view of domestic, international and political party observers. We did not see any attempts to stuff or tamper with the unsealed box.
We saw a few polling stations that had two or three steps which might have been a problem for disabled voters. There also appeared to be several cases of underage voting. Somaliland’s IRIS-based voter registration system has been highly effective at stopping double or multiple voting which was a serious problem in the 2012 local council elections, but it cannot verify a voter’s age in the absence of a national birth registry.
Finally, Somaliland’s electoral process consistently breeches international norms on ballot secrecy, but this does not appear to be a problem in Somali culture. Many voters would walk into a polling station and loudly proclaim they wanted to vote for X or Y candidate. The NEC staff would then either show them how to do this or, in some cases, do this for them. They would then show the ballots to any domestic, international, and/or political party observers present to demonstrate that the voter’s intent had been followed.
In other cases, voters would mark their ballot papers secretly but then bring them to the political party observers (who worked together amicably and professionally at each polling station we visited), asking them to verify that they had marked their ballots correctly. The secrecy of the ballot was violated repeatedly but it was done so by the voters themselves and not against their wishes.
Another logistical problem was that the ballot boxes which had been used for the last presidential election in 2017 and which were sufficient then given the much smaller ballot papers (only three candidates on each ballot), struggled to accommodate the much larger ballot papers used in this election. By mid-day or late afternoon, many ballot boxes were full, and voters were forced to cram ballot papers into them – increasingly with difficulty. Many elderly voters required assistance in getting their ballots successfully into the box.
By the time of writing, preliminary election results were out, showing that Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi Abdi, from the Kulmiye Party, faces a lower chamber of parliament controlled by an opposition coalition of the UCID and Waddani Parties who had secured 52 seats between them in Somaliland’s 82-seat parliament. This would take Somaliland back to a situation like that after the 2005 parliamentary elections when President Dahir Riyale Kahin of the then UDUB (United Peoples’ Democratic Party) Party found himself dealing with an opposition-held lower house, in which the then opposition coalition of Kulmiye and UCID held 49 seats.
Presidential elections are due in 2022, and it will be interesting to see in the coming year how the incumbent president gets on with the new parliament. The official report by the 2021 Limited International Election Observation Mission should be out in the next three-four months.
Authors: Scott Pegg and Michael Walls
NOTE: Scott Pegg served as a short-term international election observer posted to Burao for Somaliland’s 2021 parliamentary and local council elections. Michael Walls served as a chief observer for the Limited International Election Observation Mission (LIEOM) and was in Hargeisa for election day.
The views expressed here are solely those of the authors based on their own personal experiences on election day. They are not official views of the LIEOM, whose final report will be issued later this fall.
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