Somaliland elections: A potential derailment of peace?

Experiencing protracted conflict has made Somalia an impoverished nation and a failed state with an entire generation growing up war that knows war as the most common means of social interaction. In stark contrast, the breakaway republic of Somaliland is an island of stability compared to war-torn south/central Somalia. Despite having never received legal recognition by the international community, Somaliland has been able to arrive at a level of stability that is unknown to south/central Somalia for the last two decades. Due to an inclusive, grass-roots based political reconciliation process, and without international involvement, Somaliland has lifted itself out of the perpetual cycle of poor governance and violence that we see nowadays in the rest of the Somali region. In 2003 multiparty elections were held in a smooth fashion in which Dahir Riyale Kahin, who is from a small clan in the north-west of Somaliland, was elected as the third president. However, its solidity has come under threat due to several rows over multiple postponements of presidential elections. Elections must live up to international standards not only because Somaliland wants to be recognized by the international community, but also to prove democracy is a viable construct in a Somali region with complex clan dynamics.

Presidential elections were originally scheduled to take place on 27 October 2008. The elections were postponed for the first time to 31 May 2009 due to instability in the eastern Sanaag and Sool regions. The eastern border of these regions is disputed as semi-autonomous Puntland also claims territory in these regions. Due to the manipulation of clan-allegiances from both sides the exact delimitation has never been codified and remains a nipping thorn in the relationship between the two autonomous regions. On 29 March, Somaliland's upper house of Parliament, the Guurti, again postponed the presidential elections, this time to 27 September 2009, because incomplete voter registration would not allow for fair elections.

The postponement was strongly criticized by Somaliland's opposition parties, the Kulmiyeh, and the For Justice and Development party (UCID). Kulmiyeh indicated they would no longer recognize the legitimacy of President Riyale's government and UCID declared the decision to postpone the elections as unconstitutional. Both parties called upon the government to hold the elections as scheduled on 31 May 2009. The incumbent United People's Democratic Party (UDUB) put Kulmiyeh's call aside, arguing that Somaliland's upper house of Parliament, the Guurti, has the constitutional mandate to extend the governments term. This was a setback for Kulmiyeh, who advocated the government's dissolution. However, they kept on articulating their stance on the matter by holding demonstrations.

On April 6, hundreds of protestors from the opposition Kulmiyeh party gathered at their headquarters in the capital, Hargeisa, ostensibly to mark Somali National Movement day, which honours the rebel group that fought the former Somali government in the northern regions of Somalia in the 1980s. But the meeting, called by the party's leader, Ahmed Mohamed Mohamud, or Silanyo, turned out to be a protest against the six-month extension of President Rayale's term. The government subsequently announced it would ban demonstrations by the opposition because they violated the constitution as they formed a threat to national security.

The government acted on its promise when on 14 April government security forces raided Kulmiyeh's partys headquarters in an effort to silence the opposition. Forces entered at the moment Kulmiyeh was holding a press conference on the controversial term extension of the government as granted by the Guurti. In response, on the 3rd of May, Kulmiyeh and UCID demanded a change in the electoral commission. Kulmiyeh and UCID argued they no longer trusted the electoral body and called upon the government to change its composition.

This demand came after a political mediation committee, endorsed by both government and opposition, issued a five point ruling on Wednesday 29 April which was supporting mostly the incumbent UDUB party. Firstly, the term extension until 29 September 2009 was deemed valid. Secondly, the voter registration has to be concluded by 27 July 2009 so that there is sufficient time to organize free and fair elections. Thirdly, all parties must be granted equal air time prior to the elections. Fourthly, the freedom of political parties to function has been stipulated. This includes freedom of movement and the freedom to hold public gatherings such as demonstrations.

However, the judgment is still not signed by President Riyale, despite it being in his favor. Kulmiyeh and UCID now accuse Riyale of the government's unwillingness to hold elections and undermining civil liberties. They argue the third postponement lacks democratic legitimacy and undermines the democratization process. Moreover, by attempting to silence the opposition and justifying its undemocratic mandate on a pretext of emergency rule on erroneous grounds of lawlessness, serious questions are raised about the need for checks and balances to curb further excesses by the executive.

It appears that the Somaliland government is restricting political freedoms in order to guarantee an easy victory during the election to be held in September. However, the conditions for free and fair elections is not met due to the obstruction of the political ambitions of the opposition. Therefore, the presidential elections will be a test case for Somaliland's young democracy. If held freely and fairly, the international community may well reconsider its position toward Somaliland. Perhaps more importantly, by holding transparent elections Somaliland will remind Somalia and the international community that peace and stability in the country can be a reality instead of merely a distant thought.

Jesper Kleingeld, intern African Security Analysis Program, ISS Pretoria.