Political Participation

As we outlined at the beginning, for Sorensen public participation in the selection of political representatives and in policy formulation is a defining feature of a democratic system. Since public pressure forced the SNM leadership to break with Somalia in 1991, public participation has been a feature of the political system. The Borama conference and other clan conferences were large-scale public consultation exercises. The Somaliland constitution enshrined the right of universal suffrage and changed the system of selecting government from a college of elders to individual voters. The level of public participation in the elections and the degree to which communities in Somaliland are adequately represented in parliament can therefore be a measure of Somaliland’s democratic credentials.

A total of 670,320 valid votes were counted in the 2005 parliamentary election. The turn-out was lower than some had speculated and less than half the 1.3 million ballot papers that were printed for the election. Nevertheless, it was considerably higher than in the preceding district and presidential elections, with turn-outs of 440,067 valid votes and a total of 488,543 respectively. The absence of a census and voter registration or a post-election voter survey makes it difficult to determine whether the turnout was a reasonable representation of the eligible voting population in Somaliland. Determining the representative nature of the poll is made more complex by some marked differences in regional votes between the three elections.13


However, the fact that in the three elections the western regions of Woqooyi Galbeed (Hargeisa region), Awdal and Saaxil accounted for over 60 percent of the votes cast, is probably a reasonable reflection of the concentration of Somaliland’s population in the west of the country. Furthermore, the fact that the largest numbers of votes were cast in Woqooyi Galbeed also attests to the rapid growth of the capital Hargeisa since the end of the war.

These regional patterns of voting also reflect historic socio-economic differences between Somaliland’s regions. Better transport and infrastructure, shorter distances for voters to travel, better media coverage, more intense campaigning, and voter education, and a more sedentary population also facilitated a higher turn-out in the west. The smaller number of votes in Somaliland’s three eastern regions of Togdheer, Sanaag, and Sool can, in part, be accounted for by the smaller population and the fact that it is more nomadic than in the west of the country.

Despite efforts to extend the elections to rural areas, the infrastructure required for elections favors settled rather than nomadic populations. It is likely, therefore, that a substantial part of the nomadic population, which accounts for a significant proportion of Somaliland’s population, did not vote. The lower poll in eastern Somaliland is also accounted for by the fact that several districts of Sool and eastern Sanaag regions and one district of Togdheer did not participate in the polls. Somaliland’s authority over these regions is contested by the Puntland State of Somalia to the east, and since 2003 Puntland has taken control over several of the larger towns.14 Threats from populations in these regions and the Puntland authorities to disrupt the elections left the Somaliland Electoral Commission with no option but to ‘postpone’ elections in several districts in these areas. This partially accounts for the lower overall poll in eastern Somaliland.

Clan loyalty was very important in the politics of the Somali Republic 1960-1969 despite claims by politicians that it had little influence. 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 and examining the extent of clan power in politics is essential if the country’s fledgling political democracy is to develop and strengthen. The non-participation in the elections of most of the Warsangeli clan populating eastern Sanaag and the Dhulbahante clan in Sool and Togdheer in the elections has important implications for Somaliland. The participation of people in these areas could have affected the outcome of the elections. While the 2002 district election to a certain extent consolidated the Somaliland state by establishing popularly elected councils that recognize the authority of the Hargeisa government and pay taxes to it, the nonparticipation of populations in eastern Sanaag and Sool effectively served to shrink the Somaliland polity and make politics in Somaliland more exclusive (Bradbury et al. 2003). The lack of political structures that recognize the authority of the government in Hargeisa weakens the Somaliland government’s claim to represent the people of these regions.

As noted, the adoption of the multi-party system has done little to move Somaliland away from clan-based politics. For example, the 2003 elections were postponed several times until agreement was reached over the demarcation of constituency boundaries, and formula was agreed for distributing the 82 parliamentary seats to Somaliland’s six regions. The first postponement occurred when Gadabuursi elders and MPs from Awdal region rejected the election bill on the grounds that they would end up with fewer seats than they held. A feature of the power-sharing beel system has been its inclusiveness in terms of clan representation.

Since 1991, non-Isaaq clans have been represented in both the executive and legislative wings of government and after the 1997 Hargeisa conference, minority groups gained representation in the legislature. But the adoption of a majoritarian electoral system has produced ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Although the three-party system encouraged the emergence of multi-clan alliances, at a local level people voted along clan lines. The clan composition of district councils reflects the major clans in the district, while smaller clans and minorities are not represented.

The 2005 parliamentary elections did not produce any dramatic changes in popular support for the parties, but the clan composition of parliament did change (Abokor et al. 2006). The clearest changes were the increase in Isaaq and Gadabuursi representation in parliament and the decline in the number of seats held by the Harti and ‘minorities’. Despite an increase in the popular vote, the Dhulbahante and Warsengeli people of Sool and eastern Sanaag lost four parliamentary seats. This will only increase their sense of marginalization within Somaliland. The number of Essa MPs also declined, largely as a result of four candidates withdrawing from the election prior to polling day. The ‘minorities’, who gained representation in Somaliland’s second parliament, retained only one seat in the legislature.

Within the majority Isaaq clan family, the three largest clans – the Habar Awal, Garhajis and Habr Jeclo’ – all gained seats, while the smaller Arab and Ayub both lost seats (Ibid.). Within the Isaaq the most significant change was the increase in Habar Yunis politicians in parliament. The clan is represented in all the parties and across Somaliland (with the exception of Awdal region) and they potentially command the single largest ‘clan block’ of votes in parliament. This is a significant change from the mid-1990s when the Habar Yunis belief that they were underrepresented in parliament was one of the grievances behind the civil war. The equitable representation of the three major Isaaq clans should mitigate such ructions in the future.

Other changes can be found at the level of sub-clans, with some of the larger and politically stronger lineages losing ground to smaller lineages, due to the larger lineage fielding too many candidates. The impact of these changes, if any, will only become apparent over time. The lack of participation and representation amongst the Harti clans of eastern Somaliland, however, has to be addressed because in the long term it could destabilize the country.

That clan’s function as a unit of political mobilization also leads to lowering political participation, particularly along gender lines. The beel political system was criticized because it excluded women from representative politics. The Somaliland constitution gives women the same political rights as men. In all three Somaliland elections, women exercised their right to vote by turning out in large numbers. Very few women, however, were put forward by the political organizations as candidates. And those who were nominated stood little chance of being elected as they were put low down on the candidate list. Women were selected by the parties rather than being proposed by the clan, but as they could not guarantee to deliver the vote of their clan there was no incentive for the parties to select female candidates.

Interviews collected by one of the authors indicate that the lack of will to vote for female candidates again was partly a result of the structure of the clan system in which a wife is often married into a different clan, creating doubts about her loyalties both towards the husband and the father’s clan. Consequently, only two women from over 2,000 candidates were elected onto municipal councils and only two of the 246 parliamentary seats were won by women (Ibid.). Accordingly, women – who constitute a majority of the adult population and the voting public – and who contribute significantly to local government revenues through small businesses, have no direct voice in these councils and have only a marginal influence in parliament. Their lack of success has convinced women advocating for political participation to advocate for a quota of seats for women in parliament.15

However, it is important to underline the successful aspects of Somaliland’s political participation. While party-based politics has not removed the influence of clan politics, a large number of candidates in the elections, the large turn-out of voters, and the active participation of the clans did ensure the broad participation of the public in the electoral process, with the exception of Sool and eastern Sanaag. The nature of the political debate has also ensured that the elections linked local district and regional politics to national politics. Rather than Hargeisa dominating the national debate, therefore, local politics have had an influence on national-level politics and likewise, the election results will impact on political relations at a local level.

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