Somaliland’s Democracy Faces a Stress Test

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Differences over plans to reshuffle Somaliland’s licensed political parties and the sequencing of elections have cast doubts over the electoral calendar since December 2021. In light of the legal and technical timelines, it is now an “open secret” that Muse Bihi’s elected term would expire before presidential elections can be held. Based on past experience, it is inevitable that the House of Elders (Guurti) will extend the President’s term in office. The question is: On what terms might this happen, to what end, and for how long? Unless addressed through consensus, Somaliland not only faces prolonged political uncertainty, but also a constitutional crisis that could inflict lasting damage to its widely respected electoral democracy.
Government prioritizes “Parties Election” Since February 2022, Somaliland has been in a state of confusion and disarray over the way forward in its electoral processes. Tensions have been building after it became increasingly clear that the Somaliland government intends to reopen the restricted political party system through an unusual process: A direct “parties election”. It envisages a one-person, one-vote election of political parties — not to elect candidates into offices, but only to determine the three political parties to be registered for a ten-year period. The move is perceived to threaten the existence of the current opposition parties and to imply a delay of the presidential election due on November 13, 2022. Meetings between the President and the opposition leaders and repeated promises of dialogue provided some hope for a political settlement. If nothing else, there seemed to be consensus that – regardless of which election was to come first – the process to update the voter register would need to begin urgently, by mid-May. In a meeting with the political parties early March, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) also provided clarity to all stakeholders that, from a technical perspective, only one electoral process was feasible before November 2022. The election management body assessed that this would need to be the presidential election, which – contrary to the “parties election” – is mandated by the constitution and has an uncontested and complete legal framework. However, the government has since then made it amply clear that it intends to hold the “parties election” before the presidential elections. President Bihi made public statements to that effect at a speech at the army headquarters in March, at the 20th anniversary celebrations of Kulmiye Party in May, and recently again during his visit to Sanaag Region in June. Heading into a Dead End The official narrative continues to be that the presidential election will take place on 13 November 2022, contested by a new slate of political parties coming out of a prior “parties election”. In practice however, only the process to call for the registration of new political associations is actually moving forward to some extent. In May, the House of Representatives approved the seven members of the “Political Parties & Associations Registration and Approval Committee” (RAC), the body to oversee the registration process for new political associations. On May 25, President Bihi already met with a group of politicians who have declared their intention of registering new associations, further fuelling expectations among fresh contestants who are actively mobilising. And RAC has begun handing out the application forms to aspirants. At the same time, it is increasingly evident that the impediments to holding any election before the end of the year are daunting. On a technical level, one only has to recall that even for a presidential election in November, the voter registration process needed to have started by mid-May. Instead it has been suspended since the onset of a crisis in NEC in May. The situation was then complicated further because the entire electoral commission (NEC) was subsequently forced to resign under severe political pressure. Though the process to nominate a new NEC is underway and the House of Representatives moved with speed to approve four new members, the commission will most probably not be sworn into office until the confirmation of its seven commissioners is complete. Once that is the case, it will take time for the new NEC to acquaint themselves with their role, develop a working mode of operation, restore public confidence, assume ownership of the operational plans prepared by the NEC secretariat, resume the voter registration, and prepare the technical aspects of elections.  It is safe to assume that it would not be possible to resume the process in less than two to three months. And this is just one of several technical and procedural indicators suggesting that no election can take place in 2022. The impediments are particularly overwhelming for the “parties election” and go beyond the NEC and technical readiness to deliver an election. Though RAC as a committee is now in place, none of the required groundwork has been done to hold the “parties poll” in time before the licenses of the current parties expire in December. Last year, the Somaliland Government introduced an amendment to the Political Parties Law (No. 14 of 2011) which quickly became subject to political and legal dispute. Though in its ruling on 16 January 2022, the Supreme Court principally allowed this election of parties to take place, neither the Political Parties Law nor the integrated Elections Law (No. 91) have subsequently been amended to pave the way for the actual electoral process. Therefore, in legal terms, the poll has not been defined in any detail, and generally continues to be marked by serious conceptual problems. Developing and adopting changes to the electoral law has been a cumbersome and lengthy process under the best of circumstances in the past, but with a new NEC still finding its step, and more so, without political agreement on the process, is hardly realistic at all. Therefore, even if RAC registers and vets the political associations to contest in the “parties election” over the coming weeks, the electoral commission would find itself in no position to deliver a parties election before the end of the year, let alone in time for a presidential election with new parties on 13 November 2022. Crunch Time While an extension of President Bihi’s term in office appears inevitable at this point, the parties to the dispute can still determine whether this will be based on negotiations and agreement or on political confrontation and eventually unilateral action by the government and the House of Elders alone. Following weeks of stalemate, the opposition parties sought to build public pressure. On June 5, a “spontaneous” meeting of Waddani supporters in a café resulted in the arrest of the café’s owner. On June 9, Waddani Chairman Abdirahman Cirro lead a “spontaneous” protest to Khairiya Square in Hargeisa. Reports and videos indicate that police swiftly dispersed the large group, using tear gas. Both sides accused each other of firing live ammunition. Several Waddani supporters were shot and injured, including a prominent MP. Police arrested a dozen opposition members and two journalists. Waddani leader Abdirahman Cirro called for nationwide protests on 11 June, but the demonstrations were called off after a group of businesspersons and elders intervened and offered to mediate. But no talks got off the ground and more than two weeks later, former Information Minister (and leading Waddani politician) Abdillahi Cukuse, Waddani Vice-Chairman Ahmed Omar Hamarji and UCID Press Secretary Yusuf Kayse Abdillahi remain in prison. In talks with international donor representatives, the Government repeatedly committed to dialogue. Various groups of private citizens, elders and Guurti members reportedly offered to mediate in vain. The government eventually committed to talks led by a group of Guurti members and traditional elders on 22 June, which have been slow to start. Too slow to achieve an agreement before RAC opened up the application process for new political associations on 27 June. Even though it is not clear where this process will lead to, opening the applications process creates facts before the parties reach consensus on the overall electoral process. Moreover, it begins the remodelling of Somaliland’s political arena, providing grounds for infant associations to claim “a seat at the table” – something that at least the established opposition parties will find impossible to accept, making it even more difficult to find a solution acceptable for all. Mediation and negotiation are up against a critical deadline: 13 July 2022 – which is four months before the presidential election. The day marks the cut-off date for NEC to set the presidential election date on 13 November 2022. All indications are that the commission – if at all a quorum of at least four commissioners swear their oath of office before 13 July – would not be in a position to set this date. Failure to do so would trigger the (over-used) force majeure clauses of the Constitution, which provided the basis for extensions of previous President’s terms in office in 2008/9 and 2015. Building consensus across the political spectrum before the House of Elders acts on the matter – which could be any time after 13 July – will be critical to a peaceful continuation of the democratic process. Negotiations The agenda of any possible negotiations remains vague so far. The government might be interested in seeking a formal agreement with the opposition for face-saving purposes. An agreement, however coercive the circumstances, would deny the opposition the opportunity to brand the government as illegitimate after the extension. The opposition parties would have to give up the political oxygen they could otherwise draw from a unilateral extension and from claiming the “moral high ground”. However, one may wonder just how much the Kulmiye government would be willing to cede in return, given that it is taking such a strong posture on the “parties election”. By all accounts, the application process now seems to be underway, and expectations have been raised among aspirant politicians who are forming new associations. And, last not least, it looks like the ruling party has adopted the reshuffling of the political parties as the centre piece of its re-election strategy. Therefore, it would most probably seek to focus the talks on the duration of the extension alone. The opposition largely frames its public demands in terms of the upcoming expiry of the President’s term, accusing Muse Bihi of “overstaying”. But the sequencing of the elections is a more pressing concern than the extension of Muse Bihi’s term (and its duration). If indeed the “parties election” comes first, the opposition parties risk to be outmanoeuvred and therefore excluded from the presidential election altogether. On a level playing field, this may be a much less of a risk for Waddani than for UCID. In fact, depending on the resulting party and clan constellation, Waddani might stand to benefit from a demise of UCID. But neither UCID nor Waddani seem to have faith in the process. And neither the RAC nominations process nor the overall political climate provide grounds to mitigate these perceptions. The question therefore is why they should endorse a process at the end of which they may not stand the chance to contest in the presidential election. Moreover, a “parties election” before the presidential election would certainly imply a much longer extension of the President’s term of office. The opposition is likely to insist that the presidential election, which is anchored in the President’s constitutionally mandated term, is superior to the parties election in which it cannot see any urgency, especially in light of the legal gaps. It could also cite precedent: The renewal of the parties system was originally slated for a local council elections in 2007, but as constitutionally mandated bodies the first three political parties (UDUB, Kulmiye and UCID) remained until the local council elections in 2012. Term Extension – for what? However contested the issue may be, an actual resolution of the crisis requires a decision on the sequence of the elections and on Somaliland’s approach to the political associations registration problem. Only once the stakeholders answer this key question can the electoral commission be tasked to develop a technical timeline on which the Guurti can base the extension of the President’s term. If both sides dig in on the registration of political associations, the parties and the mediators could be tempted to opt for a bad compromise: In a quid pro quo, they would agree to extend the President’s term and to delay the opening of the political parties at the same time. The electoral process itself and especially the sequencing of the elections would not form part of the agreement. Apart from securing some harmony in the short term and buying the parties some time, this would simply mean “kicking the can further down the road”. The duration of such an extension would be fairly arbitrary, rather than grounded in technical realities. Therefore, the extension as such would be unproductive for the democratisation process, would further hollow out the Constitution, and simply reset the clock on a ticking time bomb while denying NEC the political (and subsequently legal) basis to fulfil its mandate. The recurrent electoral crises that have marked Somaliland’s democratization process since inception have led to a degree of fatigue if not indifference amongst local and international observers. A widespread sentiment is that the country has been “to the brink and back” so many times, it will “always sort itself out”. Indeed Somaliland’s institutions and civil society have time and again demonstrated resilience and the ability to lead the political process back to consensus and unity. The current mediation efforts provide for a degree of optimism and the parties are sending some conciliatory signals. But this should not divert attention from the fact that failure of the mediation could leave Somaliland in a severe and in several ways unprecedented situation: A constitutional crisis over the way forward in the democratic process, without a clearly defined and broadly accepted set of political stakeholders, and in the absence of a complete and functional electoral management body. Combined with the threats to relegate the existing parties to a “transitional” status after the opening of the political associations registration process, and mindful of the damage that the political infighting has done to NEC as an institution, this could inflict lasting damage to Somaliland’s widely respected electoral democracy.
The Elephant

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