Overcoming Somaliland’s Worsening Political Crisis

Somaliland is going through considerable political turmoil. The government and opposition disagree over the sequencing of two forthcoming high-stakes elections, and both sides are digging in. International partners should push the two sides to reach consensus, while standing by to mediate if talks fail.

Somaliland’s hard-earned stability is at risk. November and December were supposed to bring two important elections: one to select the president, and the other to licence the three parties that will be allowed to participate in formal politics. But the first has been delayed, and both are mired in schedule-related controversy. The ruling party and opposition both see the evolving electoral calendar as central to their political fortunes, and both are trying to control it. Tensions already boiled over into violence in August, when government forces and opposition protesters frustrated with the electoral process clashed, resulting in five deaths. The opposition threatens to no longer recognise the government led by President Muse Bihi after 13 November, which was the scheduled date for the presidential election until the parliament’s upper house, theGuurti, agreed to extend Bihi’s mandate by two years. To defuse the risk of unrest, Somaliland’s international partners should push its political elites to chart a consensus path forward, offer to mediate if they fail and volunteer to serve as guarantors for whatever resolution emerges.

Delay, Deadlock and Crisis

Since proclaiming independence from Somalia in 1991 after a years-long insurgency led primarily by members of its dominant Isaaq clan, Somaliland has developed many trappings of a state. It has pursued political, economic and social reconstruction that has helped it establish a largely stable and functional administration. No country recognises Somaliland’s independence, but its many international partners have encouraged the development of its democratic institutions.

Now, however, a dispute over two delayed elections is threatening Somaliland’s stability. The government and political opposition in the capital Hargeisa are locked in a bitter disagreement over the timing for both a forthcoming presidential poll and a vote to licence the three parties that will be allowed to participate in Somaliland’s politics for the next ten years. (This licencing process is a singular feature of Somaliland’s political architecture.) Chronic delays placed these polls within six weeks of each other, on 13 November and 26 December, respectively, creating capacity issues for election authorities and an unfortunate confluence of logistical and sensitive political issues that need to be resolved simultaneously.

Tensions between the two sides have been simmering since late 2021. The core of the dispute relates to timing: President Bihi and his Kulmiye party insist that the political parties election occur prior to the presidential vote. By contrast, the opposition Waddani and UCID parties want the presidential vote to be held first. Both sides invoke legal arguments, but political calculations likely explain their preferences regarding the electoral calendar. Bihi appears to believe that holding the presidential contest after the selection of new and potentially less experienced political parties augments his chances of staying in office. For the same reason, the opposition worries that the parties vote, if it comes first, could compromise its own bid for the presidency. Waddani bested Kulmiye in the May 2021 elections for parliament’s lower house before forging an alliance with UCID, the third party, to form a majority in the chamber. This result boosted Waddani’s confidence that it can win a presidential race.