On Thursday, voters in Somalia’s semi-autonomous territory of Puntland joined long lines to cast their ballots in historic local elections. These polls were the first direct votes in more than half a century. The international allies of the problematic country in the Horn of Africa have expressed their optimism that the “historic” elections will lead to stronger democracy throughout the entirety of Somalia.
Although comparable polls have been held in Puntland’s neighbor Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991 but has never been recognized internationally, these elections are the first one-person, one-vote elections to be held in Puntland since 1969, when Dictator Siad Barre seized power.
Somalia is striving to emerge from decades of conflict and disorder, but in addition to this, the country is confronting a brutal Islamist insurgency as well as natural disasters, such as a severe drought that has left millions of people at risk of starvation.
The United Nations, the African Union, and a number of other governments from around the world were among the organization’s foreign allies who praised the Puntland process as “historic.” “The partners believe that Puntland’s experience with direct elections has the potential to inform and inspire the expansion of democracy across Somalia at all levels of government,” they said in a statement.
The Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission issued a statement on Wednesday stating that three of the region’s 33 districts, including the state capital of Garowe, had delayed voting. The statement referred to unidentified security situations as the reason for the delay.
“Today is a priceless historic day,” said Abdirisak Ahmed, chairman of the electoral council. “A lot of people thought that the victory that we were able to secure today was not possible.”
In an analysis that was released earlier this month, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that the transition to the new voting system in Puntland had been “volatile and fraught with obstacles.”
When the polls opened at 5:00 a.m. (02:00 GMT), there were already thousands of people waiting in line to cast their ballots outside of the polling booths.
Hassan Suleyman, who voted in the coastal town of Bossaso on the Gulf of Aden, remarked that “it was a special day for me” after he had cast his ballot. “Most of the people are excited to witness the experience,” the 22-year-old told AFP. “The experience is going to be incredible. “Another voter, Warsame Mohamed, stated that “people are happy” despite the lengthy wait.
Puntland, located in northeastern Somalia, is a dry and oil-rich territory that declared its independence in 1998. Since then, relations with the central government in Mogadishu have been fraught with tension.
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the President of Somalia, who took office a year ago after being chosen by Somalia’s parliament, made the announcement in March that the country’s upcoming elections would use universal suffrage. At the moment, elections are conducted according to a convoluted and indirect paradigm in which state legislatures and clan delegates select members for the national parliament, which then selects the president.
The local elections in Puntland are being held in advance of a regional parliamentary election that is scheduled to take place in January 2024. Even though there will be seven parties competing on Thursday, several lawmakers from the opposition have already voiced their reservations about the process and accused State President Said Abdullahi Deni of trying to manipulate the election process.
Deni’s current term is set to expire in January, and the opposition has expressed concern that he may try to extend his mandate by attempting to amend the constitution of Puntland in order to do so.
After holding a meeting in the middle of May, a forum representing Puntland’s opposition issued a statement in which it claimed it “protests any attempt to open a review process for the constitution at this stage of the transition period when the mandate is close to expiring for both parliament and the government.” The forum stated in a statement that “this could be an attempt to seek an unlawful mandate extension.”
Over 387,000 people have registered to vote in the next elections in Puntland, the majority of whom are between the ages of 18 and 30. According to the TPEC, they have 3,775 candidates to choose from, with only 28 percent of them being female.