What Can Somalia’s Federal Member States Learn from Somaliland as They Transition to Multiparty Elections?

Democratisation in the territories of the former ‘Somali Republic’ is influenced by the experience with the 1960s elections. After independence, the Somali republic adopted a parliamentary democracy.

Photo: International Crisis Group

However, this democracy was short lived as elections became fraught with malpractices such as rigging, fraud, intimidation, and manipulation.

Furthermore, the multiparty system disintegrated into clan-based political parties. In the 1969 elections, 64 political parties registered candidates, though the Somali Youth League (SYL) was the dominant party. Due to the disappointment with the democratic governance, many Somalis welcomed the 1969 military coup which was seen as an alternative to the corrupt and dysfunctional democratic system.  Democratic experience in the 1960s haunts the territories of the former Somali Republic.

By the time the Somaliland elite designed democratisation in early 2000, they had limited the political parties to three to avoid the fragmented and clan-based political parties common in the 1960s. Since then, Somaliland has established a functional multiparty democratic system. However, Somaliland’s democracy is not free from weaknesses. It never held any election on time and is currently facing an electoral crisis due to the president’s office term extension. Furthermore, Somaliland’s political parties are mainly clan-based, a scenario that the founders of Somaliland’s democracy envisioned avoiding.

The government of Somalia (GS) is yet to transition to a multiparty system; however, its federal member states (FMS) have started an inchoate transitioning from clan-based electoral system to a multiparty system. Puntland state pioneered the transition and conducted local council elections in three districts in October 2021; Galmudug passed electoral laws and appointed its first state level electoral commission in December 2022, while the South West cabinet passed electoral commission laws in November 2022. Puntland has been drawing inspiration from Somaliland’s electoral system, including envisioning to limit political parties to three.

If successful, Puntland’s democratic transition is expected to serve as a model for the democratic transitions of other FMS.  In this blogpost, we will discuss lessons learned from Somaliland’s democratisation to inform how FMS can design their transitioning. Our main argument is that FMS need to consider lessons learned from Somaliland’s democratic process by adopting its strengths and avoiding its inherent weaknesses.

Strengths in Somaliland’s democratic process

Success stories in Somaliland’s democratisation process include, inter alia, its stakeholder engagement and domestic conflict resolution, adoption of advanced elections technologies, and the mobilisation of local resources for democratisation

  1. First, Somaliland’s peace and stability, including solving election related disputes, can be accredited to its reliance on domestic conflict resolution mechanisms. During electoral conflicts, different election stakeholders –such as politicians, the election body and political parties – respect local conflict resolution initiatives that are usually initiated by non-state actors such as businesspeople, elders and religious leaders. However, in the current election dispute, the political leaders did not show a similar enthusiasm for compromise and acceptance of local mediators. While the regulatory framework should provide unambiguous ways to address election related disputes, early in the democratic process, stakeholder engagement and consensus building have been important for democratisation in Somaliland.
  2. Second, Somaliland’s voter registration has gradually progressed since 2002 and has overcome several obstacles. Most of the technical issues that existed in the early years, such as multiple registrations, were solved with the introduction of the iris-based biometric voter registration in 2016. This has improved reliability in voter registration by overcoming duplicate registrations in the fingerprint and fascial registrations and eventually reducing election irregularities.
  3. Third, the role of international actors and donors in Somaliland’s democratisation process started in 2005, during the third election. During the 2002 and 2003 elections the international community did not contribute. It was after 2005 when the donors took notice of Somaliland’s democracy and started to financially and technically support it, including budget support to the electoral body and to mediate election related disputes. Somaliland still significantly finances its own democratisation process. Reliance on local resources has been important for ownership of the democratisation process as it “assisted Somaliland democracy to become organic and  locally owned ”, (interview, intellectual, Hargeisa, 25 August 2022).

Weaknesses in Somaliland’s democratisation

Somaliland’s democracy is not flawless;  some argue that after two decades of exercising democracy, Somaliland remains at “the first stage of the multiparty democratisation”, (interview, intellectual, Hargeisa, 25 August 2022), while many others believe that Somaliland regressed to a  clan-based democratic system. Election delays, limited and undemocratic political parties, separate elections, compromised independence of key institutions and low representation of women and minority groups are some of the noticeable weaknesses.

  1. First, Somaliland has never held any elections on its schedule. While its constitution stipulates that the election schedule can be changed only under special circumstances such as widespread conflict or disaster, the elections have been repeatedly delayed without the presence of these special circumstances. The election delays have not been free from negative impacts, including repeated political disputes, and eroded trust in the democratic system. Since last year, Somaliland elections have stalled partly due to missed election schedules. In October 2022, Somaliland’s upper house, known as the House of elders or the Guurti,  extended the president’s office term by two years and their office term by five years. With these extensions, the Guurti has turned the president’s five year office term into seven and their six-year term from 1997 into 20 years. It has thus been labelled ‘the house of extensions’.
  2. Second, Somaliland adopted the three-party system two decades ago to avoid the fragmented and proliferated clan party system in the 1960s. In this system, the three political associations receiving the highest votes from the Local Council (LC) elections across the country are promoted to national parties running for the parliamentary and presidential elections. The three-party system limited the political space and participation and failed to produce parties with a broad national base. In addition, the parties lack internal democracy that would enable them to divorce their identity and politics from the chairmen’s clan identity and politics.
  3. Third, except for the May 2021 elections when the house of representatives (HoR)  and LC elections were combined for the first time, Somaliland holds each election separately. In principle, three elections (Presidential, HoR, and LC) – or four if the upper house of Guurti is elected – should take place every five years. Considering the high cost of elections and the territories’ limited budget, holding these separately is not sustainable and limits the prospects of democratisation. One of the factors considered when scheduling elections is the inability to finance multiple elections that are in close range.
  4. Fourth, in Somaliland, the independence of key institutions such as the judiciary and election bodies is compromised. For example,  the President is mandated to appoint and fire supreme court judges. The President also appoints three out of the seven electoral commissioners. The current election crisis is partly contributed by political stakeholders’ low confidence in these institutions.
  5. Fifth, the inclusion of different social groups is an important indicator of democratisation. In Somaliland, the low representation of women and minorities has concerned many stakeholders. Democratisation partners lobbied to set a quota for female candidates, but the parliament rejected the proposal. In the combined 2021 elections, 28 women candidates ran for elected seats across the country. However, no women were elected to the parliament.

Policy decisions have consequences

Policy choices made at the earlier stages of the democratic processes become essential features that advance or limit democratic prospects. The Somaliland case presents a relevant template of what can be  adopted or avoided by the rest of the Somali states as they design their democratic systems.

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