Meaningful & Extensive Competition

But to what extent are these new institutions producing a democratic transition as set out in our introduction and what role does local political culture play in determining the nature of this potential democracy? The adoption of a multi-party political system and elected representation requires an environment that allows for meaningful competition. And meaningful competition requires competing political alternatives. These alternatives need not be ideologically grounded but must have clearly distinguishable political agendas and strategies to deal with social, political, and economic challenges. In Schumpeter’s (1976) version of democracy, an election is more about removing political leaders that fail to perform, rather than a contest between ideological or political agendas. In Somaliland, we see a hybrid form of government, which mixes clan and party politics and is conditioned by the historical layers of political institutions and actors.

Somaliland’s constitution limits the number of political parties to three. Of the six ‘political organizations’ that fielded candidates in the district election, three won sufficient support to become accredited national parties: UDUB (The United Democratic People’s Party), Kulmiye (The Unity Party), and UCID (The Justice and Welfare Party) (Bradbury et al. 2003). A critical challenge faced by the parties is to sustain themselves as political organizations that offer distinct policies and a meaningful political and social agenda.


In all three elections UDUB, the party founded by the late president Mohamed Ibrahim Egal and led by his successor President Dahir Rayale Kahin, has maintained its position as the governing party, holding the largest number of seats in the district elections, narrowly winning the presidential race, and but losing the majority in the parliament during the parliamentary elections. Although UDUB does not have an ideologically defined political program, the party’s campaign focused on the continuity of governance structures, stability, and experience of government, which give UDUB some of the characteristics of a right of center ‘conservative’ party.5

Kulmiye is led by the veteran politician – Ahmed M. Mohamoud ‘Sillanyo’ – a former Minister of Planning (1969-1973) and Minister of Commerce (1973-1978, 1980-1982) in Siyad Barre’s government, the longest-running leader of the SNM between 1984 and 1990. Sillanyo was also Minister of Finance (1997-1999) and Minister of Planning (1999-2000) in two of Egal’s Somaliland administrations. The party leadership also includes several other leaders from the SNM, and this is used by some of it members to give the party a popular political legitimacy.6

The Justice and Welfare Party (UCID) is the party with the most clear-cut ideology, promoting itself as a Scandinavian-type social democratic party. This is influenced by its founder Faisal Ali Farah ‘Warabe’ who lived in Finland and several of its founding members have lived in Scandinavia.7

In the Horn of Africa, competition between political parties has often been off-set by a breakdown in party structures. In Ethiopia, for example, the opposition has been notoriously fragmented and attempts to create larger political coalitions have been mired with problems. Ruling parties in the region have also sought to engineer the fragmentation of opposition parties in order to entrench their own positions. They have usually been more successful at maintaining their own party unity and loyalty, through the use of money and state resources. However, they have also been affected by a lack of party discipline.

Such political party fragmentation was also prominent in the last period of democratic government in Somalia, between 1960 and 1969. The first independent government of Somalia in 1960 was a coalition of four major political parties: the southern Somali Youth League (SYL), which was the dominant party, the northern-based United Somali Party (USP), the Somali National League (SNL), and the Hisbiga Digil Mirifle (comprising members from the Digil Mirifle clan). The coalition collapsed when Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal and several other prominent members of the SNL withdrew and joined with politicians from the SYL to form the Somali National Congress (SNC).

Although this was a demonstration of national unity, the realignment of politicians also illustrated the weakness of party discipline. The SYL succeeded in retaining power in the 1964 election, in which 21 parties participated,8 but the lack of party discipline was to have extreme consequences. Parliamentary voting on certain issues was done in secret which weakened the party’s control over its members; parliamentarians who nominally belonged to the SYL often voted with the opposition.

Consequently, despite SYL’s overall majority, the government came close to resignation in 1966, because it lost a vote in the parliament. The weakness of party structures had a clear influence in the 1967 elections, during which Egal defected from his new party and rejoined SYL. The Party fragmentation normally occurred along lineage lines. This reached a new extreme in the 1969 election which was contested by 62 parties, mostly representing one man and his lineage. The Somali Republic was fundamentally damaged by the conspiracy of silence that concealed the extent of clan influence over politicians. In the case of Somaliland, being open about it and examining the extent of clan power in politics is essential if the country’s fledgling political democracy is to develop and strengthen.

However, the fragmentation of the parties in the Somali republic was also due to other factors. Party fragmentation was fueled by the way candidates were required to raise their own funds for their campaigns. As the parties lacked the resources to support their candidates a majority of the 1,002 candidates standing in the 1969 elections were self-funded. I. M. Lewis estimated that some may have spent as much as £15,000 of their own money, a considerable investment at a time when the annual budget for the entire country was only £15 million (Lewis, 1972:397). The lack of party support meant that the candidates relied on their clans to raise the funds needed, being one of the few efficient fundraising structures.9

As many of the candidates were former civil servants who had quit their jobs to stand for parliament, candidates and clans had an interest to see a return on their investments. This may have motivated the mass defection from the opposition to the SYL after the election once its victory was confirmed. Given the limited reach of the Somali media at the time and high illiteracy rates, much of the public was uninformed about policy issues and understandably voted according to lineage loyalties. The influence of the clan system on politics was patently obvious to Somalis. But it was the rampant misuse of government funds during the 1969 election, and the use of the army for campaign purposes, that caused widespread public dissatisfaction with the government and helped to pave the way for the dictatorship of Siyad Barre. This was a sad end for a country that had experienced in the 1960s the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Africa.

There are some striking continuities between the 1960-1969 political process in Somalia and the legislative elections in Somaliland in 2005, which highlight some of the challenges of instilling a democratic system in Somaliland. One such similarity is the continuing influence of ethnic or clan-based loyalties. Although the Somaliland elections were intended to mark a progression from clan-based politics to multi-party politics, the Somali lineage system continues to have a strong influence on the political system. During the parliamentary elections, clan leaders had a role in nominating party candidates, providing the parties with lists of candidates from which to select those most able to run for office. Candidates interviewed by the authors estimated that it was necessary to spend US$30,000 to run a campaign. As the parties had few resources, candidates relied on their own resources or funds raised through their clans to finance their campaigns.

Furthermore, there was little to distinguish between the parties in terms of policies. Voters were, therefore, more easily mobilized around parochial clan issues and promises of gifts than by political arguments. Ideological cleavages between the parties were either non-existent (between Kulmiye and UDUB) or, in the case of UCID, so weakly developed that even the parties’ own MPs failed to realize that the party was supposed to be Social-Democratic/Socialist. The extent of vote-buying was unclear but was a troubling development in Somaliland. For MPs nominated by their clan and reliant on them for finance, the potential for a conflict of loyalty between the clan and party must have been strong. This was illustrated in the parliamentary elections, when five out of six candidates from the Essa clan decided to boycott the election over the allocation of parliamentary seats to the Essa, despite heavy pressures from their respective parties.

The situation in Somaliland is also characterized by relatively young parties made up of older political organizations and factions. Kulmiye incorporates several political factions. One includes former SNM military commanders who were associated with a Marxist tendency within the movement and are commonly referred to as the ‘Red Flag’ (calan cas).10 Another comprises a small religious group, and a third includes members of the ‘Hargeisa Group’ of civil activists famous for their stand against the Barre regime.11 Although the name Kulmiye – the ‘Gathering’ or ‘Unity’ – implies that it is a party that unites disparate tendencies, these differences are a challenge to party discipline. Prior to the parliamentary elections, UCID had avoided any challenges to party unity, partly because it had limited support. However, following the big gains it made in the parliamentary elections, the party may begin to experience internal divisions.

In 1960, conscious of the problems associated with political parties, Somalilanders took steps to minimize the potential for political fragmentation by restricting the number of parties to three and banning MPs from changing parties whilst in parliament. However, this does not guarantee party discipline in parliament today, where the lack of a party whip leaves room for MPs to vote against their own party. UCID indeed faced a rebellion from one of its MPs in the first session of parliament and sought to remove him from parliament by ejecting him from the party. The case was sent to court and UCID lost (interview with Warabe, 2005). One strategy by UCID to instill party discipline has been to inculcate a Scandinavian-style social democratic ideology among its MPs. But, the ideological consciousness amongst MPs is generally weak. UDUB can potentially use the state coffers to create party loyalty, by bestowing rewards on loyal MPs. However, not only is this illegal, but history also illustrates that such strategies do not necessarily guarantee success.

Since the elections in September 2005, it appears that the public profile of the parties has diminished. Offices have been closed due to a lack of resources. The parliamentary sub-committees have cross-party membership and by all reports are not split along party lines. There is more coherence amongst the candidates of the two oppositional parties, but at times it seems like the coherence has merged the two-party groups into one. The scramble by politicians after the district elections for posts in the new national parties and the alliances of convenience that were formed illustrated the opportunistic nature of politics and the absence of loyalty to the parties and their policies. The parties’ links with and control over members elected in their name to the district councils has been tenuous.

Paradoxically, party discipline and unity could worsen if Somaliland receives international recognition and if the one political issue that unites the parties and their members is removed and the government begins to benefit from direct foreign support. Several conflicts between the lower house of the parliament and the cabinet of president Kahin has emerged during the spring of 2007. The electoral commission nominated by the president was voted down by the lower house of parliament, which it according to the constitution had the power to do. However, the parliament prolonged the mandate of the sitting commission, going beyond the powers granted to it by the constitution. Kahin unconstitutionally vetoed the budget suggested by parliament, a provocative budget which suggested cutting the expenses of the presidents’ office back to the 2004 level. The paradox is that these issues, which are indicators of a struggle between parliament and president partly because of lack of precedence, might prevent the emergence of fissures within the parties, they create the need for unified fronts, and political issues larger than the quarrel over the use of resources for local patronage.

The limited experience of conducting politics through political parties and the weak party structures increase the likelihood that the clan will have a large influence on Somaliland politics. The politicians will have a form of a constituency, but it will be clan-based. This has several consequences. The influence of the clan means that women are under-represented in political institutions.

Moreover, the mix of clan and party nominations lacks transparency and leaves the system open to clients as formal party rules for nominations are disregarded.12 These problems are likely to increase popular pressure for a review of the constitutional restrictions on the number of political parties or the development of mechanisms that would enable the de-selection of a party that fails to deliver. In April 2007, a new party, Qaran, was established. Since the Somaliland constitution (articles 22 and 23) allows Somalilanders to create political parties, it is only the participation in elections that is restricted; the party lives an uneasy existence and its status in upcoming elections is uncertain at best.

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