IBRAHIM & TERLINDEN – Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Somaliland’s Elections in Limbo
The Commitment to Timely Elections unravels
Its remarkable successes notwithstanding, Somaliland’s democratisation process has been marred by recurrent delay and resultant disputes since its inception more than 20 years ago. Until just a few weeks ago, it looked as though for the first time, Somaliland would be holding its presidential election – due in November 2022 – on time. Following on from the successful and widely praised local council and parliamentary elections of May 2021, the government of President Muse Bihi had consistently confirmed its readiness to hold the polls on schedule. Allocations for the election expenses were made in the 2022 national budget, and the National Electoral Commission (NEC) was tasked with setting up a timeline. The government reiterated its commitment to the international donor community in Nairobi and in return secured financial support for the election.
However, prospects of a timely election were thrown into disarray in late December 2021, when the Somaliland Government started to change course by calling for the “opening of political parties”.
Background: Three Party Limit and derailed Party Licensing Cycle
Article 9 of the Somaliland Constitution limits the number of political parties to three. Arguably, this limits the freedom of association and the political space within the country. But based on historical experience of the first post-independence elections, this limitation is intended to prevent a proliferation of political parties along (sub)clan lines and to ensure that each of the three pursues a wide national base.
According to the original political parties law which governed the local council elections of 2002, three political parties were to be licensed out of so-called “political associations” contesting local council elections every five years. In 2011, a review of Law 14 – which governs the formation and selection of political parties – granted the three political parties a license of ten rather than five years. The logic behind the change was to provide more continuity and to give the three political parties the opportunity to compete in two presidential elections during the decade for which they would be licensed. However, the law did not factor in the recurrent delays in Somaliland’s electoral timetable: To date, the parties (Kulimye, Waddani and UCID), licensed in December 2012, only contested one presidential election in late 2017 (delayed from 2015). The next presidential election is due in November 2022, and the next local council elections are not due until 2026, but the licenses of the current parties expire on 26 December 2022.
A Party Election?
In 2021, the current administration proposed fresh amendments to Law 14 of 2011. These were designed to enable a direct election — not to elect candidates into offices, but only to determine the three political parties to be registered for a ten year period following expiry of the current licenses. The changes also included a clause that was detrimental to the opposition: Existing political parties would become “transitional” and would therefore be barred from competing in any presidential, parliamentary or local council election once the process of registering new political associations and parties was initiated. In effect, the revised version of the law would have “neutralised” the three existing political parties in May 2022.
Parliament passed the proposed amendments in 2021, but the government later changed course. It vetoed the amended law in a letter dated 20 July 2021, but only received by the (newly elected) Parliament on 21 August 2021. The President’s main objection was that the election period for the political parties would have been in conflict with the timeline of the constitutionally mandated presidential election. He requested Parliament to address this conflict between the Constitution and Law 14/2021.
However, sections of the government and some members of Parliament (MPs) continued to push for the implementation of the amended law, arguing that the President failed to reject the bill within the required 21 day period and that it had therefore become law. The call for the application of this controversial version of Law 14 infuriated the opposition parties, who saw their chance to contest in the presidential election thrown in doubt.
Wrangling over the legality of the 2021 amendments of Law 14 continued in the courts. The Supreme Court, in its ruling of 16 January 2022, affirmed the legality of the original Law 14 of 2011. However, the court endorsed one clause from the amended Law 14 of 2021 to enable the direct election of new political parties. Tensions were somewhat eased by the ruling. The leaders of the opposition felt that the court ruling favoured them because it did not accept the key proposed government amendment to Law 14/2011 that would have relegated the political parties to a “transitional” status at the onset of a fresh registration process. Although the court did not explicitly rule on the legality of the supposedly adopted new Law 14 of 2021, the confirmation of Law 14 of 2011 in principle gives the political parties – especially the opposition – a “new lease of life” to compete in the forthcoming presidential election.
Presidential or Political Parties Election first?
Law 14 of 2011 stipulates that the registration process for new political parties begins six months before the polling date[i]. The latter would be on 26 November 2022, one month before the expiration of the parties’ licenses on 26 December 2022[ii]. This would place the two elections in short sequence, starting with the presidential election on 13 November, theoretically followed by the political parties elections 13 days later, on 26 November 2022[iii].
However, statements by the Ministry of Information leave no doubt that the intention remains to select new political parties ahead of (not after) the presidential election, and to let the three newly elected national parties compete in it. The announcement of a new “Political Associations Registration Committee” by President Bihi at the end of January underlines that the government continues to pursue a swift “opening” of the political parties. The technical timelines of this process would inevitably lead to the postponement of the presidential poll.
In effect, this implies that the issue is not only a matter of sequence. Local commentators, legal and electoral experts strongly believe that only one electoral process is technically possible by November 2022.[iv] Prioritizing one election therefore automatically means pushing the second election beyond its constitutional (in the case of the presidential election) or legal (in the case of the parties election) timeline, leading to political crisis.
Meanwhile, the continuing confusion effectively prevents the electoral commission from mobilising the required funds, updating the voter register and preparing a technical process on time. Therefore the lack of clarity and the disagreement on the way forward jeopardizes the chances of realizing one or even both processes by November 2022.
For all sides, but especially for the ruling party Kulmiye and the larger opposition party Waddani, the issue at stake concerns vital political and clan interests. The government’s sudden move to initiate the registration of new political associations has been attributed to recent changes in Somaliland’s domestic political dynamics.[v] Among these is Kulmiye’s unexpectedly poor performance in the combined elections of May 2021[vi], which local observers saw as an indication of voters’ rejection of government policies and performance as well as deepening rifts within the clan coalition carrying the current government[vii]. The situation was exacerbated when Kulmiye narrowly lost the highly contested election of the new Speaker of Parliament, effectively handing control over this key institution to the opposition. Both events are perceived to have led to a less favourable political atmosphere for the ruling party and its chances in the presidential election[viii] – a prospect that has obviously excited the opposition[ix].
Against the background of their disappointment during the 2017 presidential election and in light of their performance in 2021, there is a strong belief among Waddani supporters that their candidate would be able to defeat the incumbent President Bihi in 2022. Therefore, the interpretation among Waddani supporters is that the push for the opening of political parties is a scheme to deny the Waddani candidate any chance of contesting and winning the Presidency[x]. Whether these assumptions are true or not, it is safe to assume that a delay in the election would produce particularly strong opposition to a government term extension from Waddani quarters, raising the spectre of violent confrontation, particularly if the government resorts to physical intimidation to counter protests instead of exercising political tolerance and self-restraint.
The circumstances are particularly sensitive on account of the underlying clan constellation and the assumed formula of “power sharing through rotation” – a concept that does not align easily with electoral democracy. At the centre are the three major Issaq sub-clans: Habar Awal, Habar Je’lo, and Habar Younis, whose capacity to work together and accommodate each other has been essential to securing Somaliland’s long-term stability. The election of Ahmed Silanyo as President in 2010 was seen as a political accommodation of the Haber Je’lo, who believed that their “turn” to hold the highest office of the land had arrived. Similarly, there is an expectation of a Habar Younis to be elected in 2022 (as there was in 2017). Waddani party is the primary political vehicle of the Habar Younis. A second failure of the party/clan to win the Presidency – especially if based on a procedural manoeuvre and a suspected manipulation of the process – would put Somaliland’s democracy under severe stress.
Several scenarios are on the horizon. In the first, the government continues to pursue the process of opening political parties immediately, with the intention to hold the contest over the licensing of political parties before the presidential election. The resources to cover the process are available and it is expected to kick off officially in May 2022. While President Bihi has already appointed the Political Party Registration Committee (RAC) to oversee the vetting of political associations, they are yet to be confirmed by parliament.
In this scenario, the government would hold the political parties’ election before November 2022, capitalising on strong public support for opening the political parties. This would likely split and weaken the opposition parties who would not be able to challenge the popular demand. Following the election, government would likely seek to reach an agreement with the emerging parties on a new election date and an extension of its term based on a technical timeline developed by the NEC. This scenario entails two distinct risks: Either the Guurti, the Upper House of Parliament, endorses a “technical” extension pitting the ruling party Kulmiye against either weakened or entirely new, unfunded and largely unprepared contestants; or, the Guurti – as in the past – affords the President a generous extension by e.g. two more years in office and once again jeopardizes the electoral cycle.
The second scenario is that the process falters and the government does not succeed in its bid to hold the political parties contest before November 2022 due to strong challenges from the opposition and other interested stakeholders. The opposition would likely accuse government of circumventing the election bodies, i.e. the RAC and the National Electoral Commission (NEC), and manipulating their mechanisms to achieve a certain outcome of the process. The opposition and some political aspirants are already referring to the new members of RAC as “partisan”, since four of the seven proposed commissioners are members Kulmiye party. Protracted political deadlock would drag the process out and would “necessitate” an extension of the government’s term by the Guurti. Under these circumstances, the Guurti would adopt such an extension without a prior consensus between the stakeholders. If unmitigated, this would return Somaliland to political crisis comparable to the ones that engulfed the country from 2008 to 2010 and between 2015 and 2017, the two two-year spells that followed the respective term expiries of President Rayale and President Silanyo. Except that in this case, the licenses of the current political parties would expire on 26 December 2022. Without remedy, this would throw the country into a severe and unprecedented constitutional crisis. In the absence of these legally recognized bodies, it would no longer be clear who the legitimate stakeholders for consensus building to resolve this crisis would be. This could further encourage the opposition leaders to threaten establishment of a parallel government in defiance, as other opposition parties have done before.
In the third possible scenario, the party election process falters. However, the government and parties reach a consensus to extend both the term of government and the licenses of the political parties, e.g. for a period of two years. The government term extension would have to be adopted by the Guurti, the parties extension would require an amendment of Law 14 by the parliament. In this scenario, extension of the parties’ licenses would lead the opposition to accept the extension of the government’s term more easily[xi]. In fact, some argue that this could even be a preferred outcome of the crisis for some opposition leaders, as it would be more likely to make Muse Bihi a one-term president and would buy the opposition time and opportunity to build momentum. Early indications are that forging such a “deal” would not be an easy undertaking. The opposition parties’ right to stand in the (delayed) presidential election would certainly be a key point of contention. Needless to say, political actors outside the current trio of existing parties who are preparing to register new associations would passionately oppose such a scenario, since it would deny them the chance to enter the political playing field.
The fourth scenario would be a return to the presidential election timeline as mandated by the constitution. This would require swift consensus between the political parties and the government to postpone the “opening” up of political associations and to extend the licenses of the current parties through yet another amendment of Law 14. Presidential elections would take place – only between the existing political parties – on 13 November 2022. Like the third scenario, such a move would dash the hopes of aspiring political associations and a large section of the public which was generated by the government’s earlier signals towards the opening the party registration process.
Technically, there would also be the (remote) possibility of holding the two processes together, i.e. electing a new President and the future political parties on the same day. However, this option is widely thought to risk serious confusion. Aspiring new political associations would complain of being cut out of the presidential competition, and having nothing to fundraise or build momentum around until the next scheduled elections in 2026. Theoretically, the election could also lead to a “President without party”.
There does not seem to be final clarity on whether the presidential contest will be between the old or new political parties, despite signals towards the opening of political associations. This question will guide whether Somaliland heads into scenario 1 (new parties) or scenarios 3, 4 or 5 (old parties). The prevailing public sentiment and the visible political indications suggest that the country is in scenario 1. However, delays caused by the foreseeable confrontations over the RAC and its process have a strong potential to push it towards scenario 2. Scenarios 3 and 4 would depend on consensus building between the existing political parties and are unlikely to materialise in the absence of significant changes in Somaliland’s political dynamics and landscape. Scenario 5 is a remote possibility.
Reform the Party System?
Since the adoption of the constitution in 2002, calls for reforms to deal with the restriction of political parties have been constant. Today some MPs believe the on-going debate could be an opportunity for broad discussions on the restriction of political parties, and to come up with an enduring solution that prevents the problem from resurfacing every 10 years[xii]. Indeed, there is need to re-think the political party system beyond the immediate challenge. Political observers tend to view the restriction of political parties as undemocratic and in contradiction to the constitutional right to freedom of association[xiii]. What was once conceived as a temporary measure to secure the gradual development of Somaliland’s democracy has in reality allowed three entities to form an oligopoly that controls the political space.
Moreover, it is increasingly clear that the three-party-limit has failed to achieve its stated intention, namely to promote political parties with a broad national base. Instead, all three have strong and identifiable clan allegiances. Political actors tied together in identity-based segments rather than policy-based units are hardly fit to pursue national interests. More so as the political parties as well as the Registration Committee have been overly focussed on the rights and registration of the parties as entities, whilst showing little to no regard to the democratic duties that come with these, especially in a context where only three parties are allowed to compete. As a result, the parties have de facto been owned by a handful of leaders with very little concern for democratic practices within their own structures.
Neither the 2002 nor the 2012 elections of political parties (through local council elections) produced democratic and inclusive political parties with a broad national base as intended by the constitution. Rather than evaluating and rectifying these challenges, Somaliland is now in the midst of repeating the same exercise, expecting a different outcome. In fact, if anything, detaching the political parties election from an actual contest for offices (as in the local elections) is likely to reinforce the problem.
Therefore, regardless of how the current standoff plays out, it will be important for Somaliland to “re-invent” itself in this area. Political parties have been vital to the consensus-based state-building process in Somaliland. They must continue to play this role without holding the country’s political space “hostage” in the long term.
The best hope of overcoming the current electoral preparation challenge and the seemingly perpetual cycle of electoral delays and crisis would be through a return to consensus politics, the remedy to which Somaliland has traditionally turned in moments of fierce political contestation. Somaliland’s political leaders should cooperate to reach a political compromise at the negotiation table. However slim, the opportunity to set a consensual electoral timeline and stage peaceful elections still exists, and should be pursued at all costs.
Somaliland rightly earned praise from both domestic and international observers for holding peaceful and transparent parliamentary and local council elections on 31 May 2021[xiv]. At the time, the international community[xv] and the people of Somaliland commended the President and his administration for organizing the long overdue polls and financing 70%[xvi] of the election operation.
If Somaliland’s political elites were to capitalize on these successes by forging a political consensus on the key challenges to holding the two processes, they would spare the country the grim prospect of acute political tension and possibly even violent confrontation. They would also capitalize on the unique opportunities of the recent spike in international interest in Somaliland and reinforce its distinct political trajectory from Somalia at a time when the latter is still struggling to stage even indirect elections a year after President Farmajo’s electoral term expired. And, last not least, President Bihi would continue to demonstrate the kind of leadership he provided after the opposition’s strong performance in the 2021 elections, allowing Somaliland’s democratic process to continue to thrive. Without doubt, the world is craving for such “rare good news in the troubled Horn of Africa”.[xvii]
This article was published in collaboration with Hbs Horn of Africa.
[i] See Article 6.5 of Law 14/2011: http://www.somalilandlaw.com/Political_Parties___Assoc_Law___Amends__20…
[ii] According to an MP with legal background, in a press conference held in Hargeisa in January 2022.
[iii] The registration process would begin on 26 May 2022.,
[iv] Phone interview with a member of NEC, Hargeisa, 18 January 2022. According to Local commentators and legal expert on local satellite TVs analysing the court ruling on Jan 16, 2022
[v] Suleiman Ibrahim Hashi, local political analyst, MMTV Somali on 12 January 2022. See: https://youtu.be/-Esa4v_VImc
[vi] International Crisis Group (ICG), 2021: Building on Somaliland’s Successful Elections. Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°174. Nairobi/Brussels, 12 August 2021. https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/somaliland/b174-building…
[vii] Informal discussion with media people, Hargeisa, 13 December 2021.
[viii] Informal discussion with media people, Hargeisa, 13 December 2021.
[ix] Informal discussion with media people, Hargeisa, 13 December 2021.
[x] Informal discussion a Waddani youth supporter. Hargeisa, 11 January 2022.
[xi] Phone conservation with former MP. Hargeisa, 16 December 2021.
[xii] See e.g. https://qarannews.com/daawoshir-jaraaid-xasaasiya-oo-uu-qabtay-xildhiba…
[xiii] Michael Walls (et. al.) 2021: Limited International Election Observation Mission Somaliland House of Representatives and local council elections, 31 May 2021, DPU Consultancy Report. October 2021. See: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/development/sites/bartlett_development/f…
[xiv] ICG 2021.
[xvi] Academy for Peace and Development and Institute of Public Policy (APD-IPP) (2021): A Vote for Change: Somaliland’s Two Decades Old Electoral Democracy, May 2021. https://apd-ipp.com/2021/05/24/a-vote-for-change-somalilands-two-decades-old-electoral-democracy/
[xvii] ICG 2021.
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