By Stephanie Butcher, on 11 March 2013
The history of Somaliland has long existed as a quiet success story within the more volatile Horn of Africa. Having declared independence from neighboring Somali in 1991, the nation has since operated as a relatively stable, if persistently unrecognized, autonomous state. Partially underpinning this image of stability is the nation’s demonstrated commitment to moving beyond clan politics to a multi-party system of democracy—represented in the incidence of six different elections ranging from the local to the presidential level. The most recent of these local council elections occurred November 28, 2012, an occasion I witnessed as a part of a 52-member team of international election observers. This election acted as a window into the wider Somaliland political system, highlighting a unique set of institutional arrangements, offering insights into key themes of citizenship, participation, and democracy.
The November 2012 elections saw nearly 2,400 candidates vying for 379 seats spread across six districts of Somaliland. For the seven different political associations represented, this election would determine the top three ultimately eligible to contest all future elections for the following ten years. As such, candidates stood as both individuals and party representatives, raising the stakes for all-out campaigning on two different levels. The observation mission, headed by Dr. Michael Walls of DPU and Dr. Steven Kibble of the NGO Progressio, allowed us to witness a month marked by vibrantly-hued rallies of song and dance, cars full of chanting youths, and billboards, walls, rocks, and even donkeys emblazoned with campaign paraphernalia. Beyond complaints related to traffic jams, noise, and the occasional injury sustained by over-exuberant supporters tumbling out of vehicles, campaigning proceeded in a largely peaceful and equitable fashion. Polling day demonstrated a few more hurdles— most significantly the overwhelming practice of multiple voting. (This was certainly exacerbated by the lack of a voter registration system, and apparent impermanence of the ‘indelible’ ink used to mark those that had already voted.)
Other concerns surfaced regarding the sometimes heavy-handed police response to disorder, particular as voting day waned on and polling stations began to run out of ballot papers. Further disturbances were evidenced in the wake of announced results, with protests, sometimes violent, occurring throughout the nation. Despite these setbacks, the international observer team was ultimately able to report on process that was reasonably free, characterized by exceptional polling staff, and which tackled the major concerns posed by the vast number of candidates. In a wider region marked by nonexistent, violent, or repressive electoral histories, and in a nation-state characterized by a severe lack of resources, it is easy to be charmed by the unlikely and repeated success of elections.
Beyond these more procedural concerns related to the election process, the stories we gathered generated a series of reflections in relation to different visions of citizenship and participation. The Somaliland political structure today acts as a hybrid system, melding representative democratic institutions (executive, legislative, and judicial) with the more traditional decision-making mechanisms of consensus-building amongst clan elders. The fluidity between these different systems remained highly visible within the November elections, where more informal clan systems continued to shape the formal electoral process. This was perhaps most evident within the various political associations themselves, which had not developed particularly distinctive policy orientations, and continued to mobilize loosely around kinship lines.
Reports of negotiations amongst clan elders to determine which candidate to support were common and were reflected in the tendency of some candidates to suddenly withdraw from the race, or even switch party allegiances. Perhaps more positively were the examples of this influence in the voter education system, where more informal practices supplemented the formal donor-driven education system to support the population on how to decipher the (rather overwhelmingly) ballot paper. These experiences highlighted the multiple ways in which these spaces pushed against, influenced, or transformed each other.
What is perhaps most interesting here is to consider the role of Somaliland’s clan-based system, which has historically infused everything from political decision-making processes to service delivery. Within this structure, the emphasis on public deliberation and consensus created clear spaces for certain visions of citizen participation—an ethos that curiously underpins many of the ‘participatory governance’ initiatives initiated today. Unsurprisingly then, recent moves to institutionalize the trappings of representative democracy are felt by some to constrict these more traditional spaces—relegating a more robust form of citizen participation (at least for men) to the routinized sphere of elections. Yet in other ways this evolution offers other potentials—generating certain legitimacy for the unrecognized nation, and creating certain safeguards for the well-being of groups that may have particular interests outside of clan lines—demonstrated most concretely in the case of women.
In Somaliland, the current election marks another step to institutionalize a multi-party system, with the hopes that the top three elected parties are able to forge lasting allegiances and associations amongst a broader spectrum of the population. Though there are certain gaps in regards to social and political enfranchisement, what remains is to examine whether this represents one step in an evolving process—a foundation from which deeper discussions on social and political participation can emerge. At the same time, it is important not to lose sight of the rich tradition of democratic debate that has characterized the Somaliland system, and the opportunities for public involvement that this offered. As the nation continues to move along a particular democratic path it is valuable to continue watching these spaces of engagement, perhaps drawing lessons for a wider region strongly influenced by kinship bonds, and allowing for deeper theoretical discussions on the shape and visions of citizen participation.
Stephanie Butcher is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU.