The bumpy road to the presidency – campaigning in Somaliland

With the date for Somaliland‘s Presidential election set for June 26th the campaign for the polls is now in full swing. These three authorized parties – the incumbent president Rayaale’s UDUB, the KULMIYE (Unity) and UCID (Justice and Welfare party) – are mobilising their supporters and the country is awash with the colours and symbols of a much anticipated and long delayed electoral contest.

            Campaigning on alternate days in the capital Hargeisa the parties pack their supporters in (and around and on top of) buses, four-wheel drives and sedans to tour the city and pack out the downtown rallies. It’s almost as though the presidency was being awarded to the party that can fit the most supporters and banners into already overflowing vehicles and drive in the most terrifying, death-defying fashion around Hargeisa’s pot-holed, goat filled roads. To an outside observer it sometimes seems as though the election campaign is serving as a welcome outlet for public celebration, complete with music and dancing, in an otherwise conservative society. There’s certainly a party atmosphere when the marches and rallies kick into motion, complete with hundreds of flag waving children and dancing women clad in custom made partisan coloured burqas. Indeed, the wanton-abandon of the political festival is drawing fire from the some of the mosques. As well as calling for a peace and vigilant approach to the election several Imam’s Friday sermons focused on the potential moral consequences of over-excited campaigning – women hanging out of the windows of cars driven by men was a particular target of the Imams’ ire last Friday (Geeska Afrika, Hargesia June 13).

            In amongst the festivities it’s impossible however to forget how much is riding on this election for Somaliland‘s continuing political stability and wider relations in the Horn. This was a fact tragically underscored on Thursday by fighting in Burco between the police force and alleged Jihadis bent on disrupting the electoral process.

            The ‘internationally recognized’ Transitional Federal Government (the TFG) has remained quiet about electoral developments in the north, though many here believe that, whilst it remains battling for survival behind the barricades in Mogadishu, it retains an interest in seeing the election fail in Somaliland. This is an interest arguably shared by the ‘Islamist’ militia groups who appear to be extending their grip over even larger areas of south central Somalia.

            In the international forums of the ongoing Somali story the political process playing out in the northern breakaway Somaliland Republic remains the elephant in the room that no-one quite knows how to talk about. Vague references to Somaliland’s political process in the public declarations of the last international Somali conference held in Istanbul last month illustrates a continuing ignorance, ambivalence or discomfort on the part of the ‘international community’ to seriously engage with anyone other than Sheikh Sharif’s TFG in Mogadishu – the inverted commas of "Somaliland" in reference democratization mentioned in the Istanbul declaration say it all. The paradigm for international involvement with Somaliland remains as ambiguous as ever and continues to leave the breakaway republic in its accustomed limbo.

            If the election taking place on June 26th passes off peacefully and produces a workable and generally accepted result then not only will this constitute another remarkable achievement in Somaliland’s ongoing political history but may alter the regional playing field and invite a re-evaluation of international engagement with the northern state. The cold realities of international relations aside this is certainly a dominant perception in the minds of Somalilanders who are preparing to go to the polls. The T-shirts of at least one of the parties are complete with slogans talking about ‘change we can believe in’ (I’m sure I’ve heard that somewhere before…) and whilst even a free and fair election or peaceful transition of power may not bring a fundamental change in Somaliland’s relationship with the world, there is no doubt that a lot of eyes will be looking this way come June 26th.


For pictures of the campaign see