The stalled electoral process has plunged Somaliland into a serious political crisis that presents yet another risk of destabilisation for the region. If its hard-won political stability collapses under the strain of brinkmanship and intransigence, clan leaders might remobilise militias, in effect ending its dream of independence. The political class must finally accept to uphold the region’s constitution, abide by the electoral laws and adhere to inter-party agreements such as the electoral code of conduct and memorandum of understanding signed on 25 September 2009, so as to contain the crisis and permit implementation of extensive electoral reforms. International partners and donors should keep a close watch on developments and sustain pressure for genuinely free and fair general elections in 2010.
President Rayale’s third term of office should have expired on 15 May 2008. The election that was to have been held at least one month earlier has been rescheduled five times, most recently for 27 September 2009. The new National Electoral Commission (NEC) has yet to set a sixth date.
The latest delay was ostensibly caused by the unilateral decision of the previous NEC not to use a voter registration list tainted by massive, systematic fraud. This prompted both opposition parties to declare an election boycott and suspend cooperation with the commission. The resulting impasse triggered yet another crisis. Publicly the political elite sought to blame the NEC, its technical partner, Interpeace, and each other, but the crisis was one largely of its own making.
The recurrent rescheduling of elections and the fraud-tainted voter registration process are symptoms of deeper political problems. While President Rayale and his ruling party have benefited most from more than a year and a half of additional time in power, all the political stakeholders are in some way responsible for the selection and continuation of an incompetent and dysfunctional electoral commission, rampant fraud during voter registration, frequent skirting of the constitution and failure to internalise and institutionalise democratic practices.
The crisis was defused in late September, when the parties – under strong external and internal pressure – accepted a memorandum of understanding (MOU) agreeing to a change in the NEC’s leadership and composition, use of a “refined” voter registration list and delay of the elections to a date to be determined by the NEC, with input from independent international experts. The MOU brought the parties back from the precipice, but it is a vague document that must be complemented by additional measures to prevent new crises.
Somaliland has made remarkable progress in its democratic transformation, but political wrangling and wide-scale attempts to manipulate the political process have corrupted governing institutions and undermined the rule of law. Democratic participation, fair and free elections and effective governance need to be institutionalised and made routine, or non-violent means to resolve political crises could be replaced by remobilisation of militias, with significant risk of violent conflict.
Improving the political culture will necessarily be a long-term, internal process, but as a start the institutions that manage elections – the NEC and the office of the voter registrar – need to be professionalised and depoliticised and the electoral laws and agreements adhered to strictly by both political parties and voters. International partners should encourage and support the government and parties to do the following:
•Civil society and international supporters must shield the new, inexperienced NEC from political pressure as it organises the presidential elections, and the NEC itself must actively resist succumbing to manipulation. The new commissioners must focus on preventing electoral fraud, working with international experts to develop a calendar for the vote, identifying problems with the current voter registration list and developing solutions for extensive duplicate registrations. The NEC also should be given the resources to hire adequate staff.
•All parties have agreed to the need for a revised registration list. The problem is that the list clearly still contains too many duplicate records and is not trusted by the political parties. Priorities for the new NEC should include hiring a competent, impartial permanent registrar and complementing the list with alternative methods and mechanisms for voter verification and fraud prevention, such as using indelible ink to identify those who have voted, limiting polling hours and imposing driving prohibitions to prevent parties and clans from transporting people to multiple locations. The emphasis should be on improving the process of updating the database and transferring the capability to do so to the Somaliland staff.
•Because of concerns for its accuracy, the registration list should not be used to determine the number of ballots and ballot boxes for particular areas, since that could lead to ballot stuffing where there was greater registration fraud. Agreement is needed on the number of boxes and ballots to be sent to the polling stations.
•Unconstitutional extensions of mandates must stop. Separate elections should be held for both the House of Representatives and district councils in 2010. More contentious will be renewal of the Guurti, presently the non-elected, clan-nominated upper house of the parliament. The constitution provides its members should be selected every six years, but does not stipulate how. Renewal has not happened since 1997, and the procedure needs to be defined urgently.
•The constitutional provision limiting the number of political parties able to compete in legislative and presidential elections to three has resulted in the monopolisation of power by the parties and leaders who were in place when the constitution was adopted. A new law clarifying how these three parties are to be chosen and permitting changes, coupled with a permanent system for the registration of new and independent political associations, should be adopted to encourage competition and accountability in political life.
•The new NEC, with donor support, should identify established, reputable local NGOs to prepare pre-election voter education and civic awareness campaigns. Materials should be developed for schools, and the education ministry should require classes on democratic practices. Clerics should be enlisted to raise awareness of election laws.
•Local NGOs, with foreign technical aid, should help train party and civil society observers to detect fraud, resist political and clan pressures and carry out nationwide election monitoring, partnering where possible with international monitors.