Somaliland’s elections

Somaliland just held elections recently. Political scientist Scott Pegg was there as an international observer. I reprint his report with his permission:

I was in Somaliland as an international election observer for their parliamentary and local council elections on May 31st. The blog I did with Michael Walls has lots of cool photos in it if you want to see low-tech democracy in action in an extremely poor country in the Horn of Africa: https://defactostates.ut.ee/blog/observing-somaliland%E2%80%99s-2021-parliamentary-and-local-council-elections.

So, the biggest problem by far with Somaliland elections is that there is almost no policy or ideological differences between the candidates (everyone wants them to be recognized, everyone wants to promote livestock exports, etc.). Candidates will loudly proclaim how they fundamentally differ from their opponents but then when you ask them something like “give me three key issues you disagree about,” they start mumbling and deflecting. Unfortunately, much of their politics is clan-based (and often sub-clan based). When I was there for the 2017 presidential elections, a seasoned political observer who is a friend of mine gave me this incredible breakdown of “we’ve got this clan, that sub-clan and the other sub-clan, they’ve got this clan, that sub-clan and the other sub-clan and the only unknown variables are this clan and that sub-clan.” It was exactly like John King pulling up different electoral maps on CNN, just without the maps and the technology. Based on his analysis, I asked if I could get posted to either Burco (where I was sent in both 2017 and 2021) or Boroma because they were what he correctly predicted were the equivalents of “swing states” in their election. So that’s the depressing part.

The inspiring part is that there are several minor issues or problems, but the elections themselves are incredibly peaceful, festive, free, fair and orderly. The single biggest problem I saw this time was an unsealed ballot box. The polling station staff knew it was a serious problem and had already called the regional electoral headquarters to ask for additional seals to be brought out. Yet, the box is sitting in the middle of the room in full view of all voters and all observers and no one is tampering with it in any way. I initially thought the polling station I saw close was closing early and leaving a few dozen voters in line locked out of the process. Then, I soon discover that it is a 20 minute break for evening prayer time, after which they resume voting and stay open 90 minutes late to accommodate everyone who was in line before the polls close. They weren’t supposed to do that, it was technically wrong, but it wasn’t anything that was done with any kind of fraud or malicious intent and all the voters were totally cool with it. The one area where they totally violate international norms is on the secrecy of the ballot. Voters can vote in secret but large numbers of them just don’t care if people know who they are voting for and walk into the polling station loudly proclaiming I want to vote for X or Y candidate. The election staff either shows them how to do this or does it for them and then shows the ballot to all observers so they can see the voter’s intent was carried out. Alternatively, some voters vote in secret but then go up to the political party observers and say something like can you verify that I actually voted for X and Y candidates, which they then do honestly and scrupulously. They have assorted small problems or mistakes, but absolutely zero fraud, systemic irregularities or malevolent intent. Watching the process on election day is truly inspiring and I wish more Americans who are so jaded and cynical about our democracy could see it.

For more on Somaliland at NOL, start here. You can check out Scott Pegg’s excellent scholarship here.