Democratic elections may be most interesting at the fringes of the democratic world. Whereas elections in Europe only become slightly exciting when lunatics or dangerous nationalistic movements participate, here in Somaliland the upcoming presidential elections of 13/11 are an uplifting experience.
I am the first to rail about ‘elections without democratization’ and the imposition of the model of representative elections (which is arguably starting to fail in the West) on developing countries under the ‘There Is No Alternatiive’ motto, stifling local political forms and vitality.
Nonetheless the electoral campaign here in Somaliland is stirring up a positive mood in society. I have even decided to stay in Hargeisa during the elections and may be part an Electoral Observation Mission.
Of course you know nothing about elections in Somaliland, so let me give you a quick tour. The country is independent since 1991, although it hasn’t been recognized by the rest of the world. Its elections therefore do not qualify for most of the international support mechanisms, and they are largely self-organized – although Western donors do still play an important role in funding them. Since 1991 the country has held a few general elections. In the last Presidential election, in 2010, the current president, then in the opposition, won with only 258 votes (- or was it 285? 18 months after the election it was found that the person reading the final tally was getting his units and tens mixed up).
Despite the slim margin, the then sitting president conceded defeat instead of ordering a recount, and Silanyo became President. The current elections should have been held in 2015 (after five years). They were delayed several times but not because of the President’s wish to hang on to power (he is old and was reportedly upset at the delays, wishing to retire) but because of general political inertia. There were always excuses to delay the polls, and the opposition kept agreeing. Finally it were international donors who started putting pressure.
This seems to indicate the stakes are not so high. Since Somaliland is not recognized, gaining political power does not open the doors to all the privileges of being an international ruler, from soft loans to attractive education opportunities, endless luxury at international conferences etc. Since Somaliland has no natural resources and is a poor country with only about 4 million inhabitants, the government has to operate on a shoestring and there’s not millions to be pocketed by the rulers, as in other African countries; again, the lack of international recognition forecloses many loan opportunities. Maybe it is not so attractive to be president of Somaliland?
Somaliland has a constitutionally agreed three party system, designed to avoid clannism in politics: the three parties must remain open to people from any clan background. In the current election, there are only two candidates who stand a good chance: Muse Bixi Cabdi and Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Cirro’, pronounced ‘Beehee’ and ‘Irrow’. The third candidate, the veteran politician Faisal Warabe, has no chance of making it in this simple majority system (no reruns).
First piece of good news: both candidates are ‘safe’ from a democratic perspective; they are not divisive or hold dangerous ideas. The country will be well off with either of them. No Trumps in this race. They both want peace, unity, development etc. They are not slinging mud at each other.
The supporters of both candidates have locked horns a few times, but it has not gone any further than throwing stones. Somalis are a rowdy bunch, the youth is bored and the electoral campaign is a good excuse to party. Singing and dancing in the streets, face paint and outrageous costumes in their party colours, driving at full speed hanging out of the windows, late night revelry despite being banned by the government – it’s all part of the electoral fun. Local observers have seen that the same groups of bored youngsters (male and female) join now one group, now the other, changing the colour of their accessories from orange to yellow and green, and back to orange, to partake in the campaign fun.
Somaliland has a curious electoral campaign system, where each of the three parties gets a campaign day in turn. The first day UCID, the second Kulmiye, the third Wadani etc. The rationale is to avoid clashes between supporters, and it works well. The few incidents noted in the media are nothing compared to the positive energy that inundates these crowds, eager to choose the future leader of their country.
How do they make their choice? While the opposition party has a clear manifesto on their website (votecirrro.com), the ruling Kulmiye party has little online, besides pictures of the campaign and a few fundamental texts, such as a hagiography of their leader. But everybody knows what Kulmiye stands for: more of the same. Since even the opposition candidate Cirro admits that the past few years have been good for the country, Kulmiye may not feel the need to be explicit about what it plans to do.
In fact 95% of the voters do not care about party programs and candidate intentions anyhow. They vote mostly on clan grounds. Cirro is from the Habar-Younes clan, and Muse Bixi is Habar-Awal/Sacad Muse, and the other Isaaq clans dominant in Somaliland, sometimes down to family level, vote one way or the other. The non-Isaaq clans are less concerned about the elections. And there are floating sub-clans, which have not yet decided which way to vote.
But Wadani also tries to appeal to youth in general, and students in particular, with a campaign about the need for change, while Kulmiye, as befits a ruling party, seeks to reassure the more conservative sectors of society, and those who are doing well, that they will maintain the status quo. Luckily it is not only about clan, although it admittedly is mainly about clan.
Altogether, and taking into account the fact that only a bit more than 700,000 Somalilanders have bothered to register as voters (on an estimated total of 2,000,000 eligible), this electoral process is not a key defining moment in the construction of a democratic Somaliland. It is rather an illustration of the fact that this country already has institutions that enjoy popular legitimacy, and is strengthening them.
The photo at the top was taken by the author this morning. The other photos come from the campaign websites and social media accounts of Kulmiye and Wadani.