Voters in Somaliland’s 2012 municipal elections. Photo credit: VOA/Kate Stanworth (public domain)
Freedom House Rating
De facto independent state (technically part of the Federal Parliamentary Republic of Somalia)
Parliamentary and Local Elections
May 31, 2021
November 13, 2017
November 28, 2012
September 29, 2005
Somaliland holds a presidential election on November 13, 2022, following last year’s long-delayed parliamentary and local elections (the first since 2005 and 2012, respectively). Conversely, the presidential election is set to take place on schedule.
Somaliland has de facto but not internationally-recognized independence from Somalia. While the rest of Somalia was under Italian rule prior to independence, Somaliland had been under British rule. Although it joined Somalia following independence in 1961, relations were tense, and Somaliland ultimately declared independence from Somalia in 1991 after the government in Mogadishu collapsed. The self-proclaimed republic subsequently set about building independent democratic institutions, in contrast to the chaos in the south of Somalia. Despite the lack of recognition, Somaliland is a functional state with more freedom and better governance than the rest of Somalia.
Somaliland’s 2001 constitution – which citizens approved in a referendum that passed with 97 percent of the vote – established a multiparty system. Since then, although there has only been one set of parliamentary elections, Somaliland has held three presidential elections and two sets of local elections.
In contrast to the rest of Somalia, Somaliland holds direct elections. The country’s elections have generally been considered credible by domestic and international observers, but constant election delays have weakened the country’s democratic credentials. However, Joseph Siegle and Candace Cook note: “Somaliland has navigated a positive democratic trajectory because of the strong democratic culture that has been embraced by its nearly 6 million residents. This is backed by consensus among all three parties on the importance of resolving differences through negotiation without disrupting the territory’s cherished reputation for stability.”
Clans play a major role in Somaliland politics. Like Somalia, Somaliland is ethnically, linguistically, and religiously homogeneous. However, individuals identify strongly with their clans, which are based on ancestral lineages. In order to prevent politics from devolving into clan warfare by other means by preventing each clan or sub-clan from forming its own political party, Somaliland instituted a three-party system. While Somalilanders are free to form political associations as they see fit, the country’s constitution allows for three official political parties – the top three political associations in municipal elections become the official parties which could then contest parliamentary and presidential elections. Moving from clan-based politics to issue-based politics remains a challenge, although the parties have made strides.
Following the first municipal elections in 2002, the three official parties were the Union of Democrats (UDUB), which at the time held the country’s presidency; Kulmiye (“solidarity”); and For Justice and Development (UCID).
Many of Kulmiye’s leaders had been part of the Somali National Movement (SNM), a militia group that had been involved in the fight to overthrow Somalia’s military dictator, Siad Barre, and later fought for Somaliland’s independence. In contrast, many UDUB leaders served in the Somali government under Siad Barre. UCID, meanwhile, finds much of its support among the diaspora community, and appeals primarily to urban voters.
The 2010 presidential election led to a transfer of power from UDUB to Kulmiye, when Kulmiye’s candidate Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud “Silanyo” defeated incumbent Dahir Riyale Kahin. UDUB subsequently dissolved.
In the 2012 municipal elections, six political associations competed (15 had applied, but nine were disqualified), and the top three became official political parties. Kulmiye was the top vote-getter. Wadani, a new party formed by former UCID members and joined by UDUB members of parliament, came in second, while UCID placed third.
The 2017 presidential election was a closely-fought contest between Kulmiye and Wadani, with Kulmiye’s Muse Bihi Abdi ultimately prevailing over Wadani’s Abdirahman Cirro. Both candidates used heated rhetoric, and the country became quite polarized. Wadani initially rejected the results, but when international observers concluded that despite some irregularities the election was generally credible, Wadani conceded.
Somaliland held its long-overdue parliamentary and local elections on May 31, 2021. The two main opposition parties, Waddani and UCID, together won more seats in parliament than the governing Kulmiye party. Waddani and UCID teamed up to choose a parliament speaker and on local councils (where they also won), and Kulmiye accepted the results. It is significant for democracy that the opposition won the “midterms.”
Somaliland has a strategic location on the Gulf of Aden. In that vein, foreign powers have made moves to establish bases. For example, the United Arab Emirates began building a military base in Berbera, although the project has since morphed into a civilian airport. Russia is also seeking to build a military – reportedly in exchange for recognizing Somaliland’s independence.
Somaliland’s relations with Somalia have been tense since it broke away, but in June 2020 – for the first time since 1991 – the presidents of Somalia and Somaliland met in person (in Djibouti). However, the two parties are still very far apart on how to move forward. As VOA’s Mohammed Yusuf notes: “Mogadishu’s technical team on the talks is led by the interior minister, signaling that Somalia considers the talks an internal matter. Somaliland’s team is led by the foreign affairs minister, signaling that Hargeisa sees the talks as a negotiation between two states.”
Conrad Heine, African Arguments (January 10, 2022): How did Somaliland end up with zero female MPs?
Joshua Meservey, Heritage Foundation (November 29, 2021): Missing Opportunities in Somaliland
Robert C. O’Brien, National Interest (August 13, 2021): China’s Worldwide Expansion Plan Stops in Somaliland
International Crisis Group (August 12, 2021): Building on Somaliland’s Successful Elections
Michael Horton, Jamestown Foundation (June 18, 2021): Somaliland Elections Disrupt al-Shabaab’s Regional Expansion
Peter Fabricius, ISS Today (June 11, 2021): Somaliland’s election boosted its theoretical case for recognition
AFP (June 7, 2021): Somaliland Opposition Joins Forces to Grab Control of Parliament
Benedict Brook, New Zealand Herald (May 31, 2021): Independent but unrecognised nation of Somaliland heads to the polls
Peter Fabricius, Daily Maverick (May 30, 2021): Somaliland: The little country that could — if only the world would let it
The Economist (May 8, 2021): Somaliland, an unrecognised state, is winning friends abroad
Saeed Shukri, The Elephant (May 3, 2021): Unrecognized Vote: Somaliland’s Democratic Journey
Mark Buckton, Taiwan Times (February 12, 2021): Somaliland Elections To Take Place May 31st, 2021
Somaliland Sun (August 26, 2020): Somaliland: Major Election Stakeholders Concur on May 2021 Polls
Mohammed Yusuf, VOA (August 7, 2020): Analysts Hope Elections Do Not Slow Somalia-Somaliland Talks
Nick Aspinwall, The Diplomat (July 10, 2020): Taiwan Throws a Diplomatic Curveball by Establishing Ties With Somaliland
Maria Gerth-Niculescu, DW (December 1, 2019): Somaliland is on a rocky political path
The Economist (November 13, 2017): Why Somaliland is east Africa’s strongest democracy
Jason Beaubien, NPR (May 30, 2017): Somaliland Wants To Make One Thing Clear: It Is NOT Somalia
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Updated January 17, 2022