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Somaliland poll fuels recognition hopes

But who’s saluting? Somaliland’s flag is unrecognized outside the territory. Photo: Somaliland flag, Flickr/guuleed.Source: IRIN

[HARGEISA] (IRIN) - As voters in Somaliland prepared to finally cast their ballots in a tight, oft-delayed presidential election on 26 June, there was one outcome for which almost everybody in the territory, regardless of political or clan affiliation, was rooting.

Peaceful and well-conducted polls “will lead to international recognition of Somaliland”, Mohamedrashid Sheikh Hassan, who is running for vice-president on the opposition Justice and Welfare Party (UCID) ticket, told IRIN.

“The first task” of whoever wins “is getting international recognition. Everything else follows from there. Without it you cannot have development,” said Said Ahmed Hassan, the president of Gollis University in Hargeisa.

"It is difficult to do business without recognition, so the new government must strive for recognition so as to set up proper financial institutions which will ease a lot of transactions," said trader Khadar Ahmed.

"My best hope is for a free, fair and transparent poll as the world is watching to see how Somaliland will hold its elections,” said Mohamed-Rashid Muhumed Farah, a veteran journalist and chairman of the Saxafi Media Network.

“If the poll is successful, this will inevitably lead to Somaliland's recognition by the international community," he added.

Somaliland unilaterally declared its independence in 1991, but, despite its relative stability and the establishment of democratic institutions, it is still considered by the outside world to be part of Somalia.

There is a degree of foundation for Somalilanders’ optimism, according to E.J. Hogendorn, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, who noted that regional powerhouse Ethiopia recently upgraded the status of its consulate in Hargeisa to a “trade office”.

Recognition “is discussed at high levels in European circles, in [the UK’s] House of Lords and the European Parliament, for example.”

“But there is a consensus that, if recognition were to occur, an African country would have to take the lead. If a major African state were to recognize Somaliland, pressure on others to do so would be significant, and could lead to a cascading effect,” he said.

Recognition reluctance

The first international organization to extend recognition would have to be the African Union (AU). But the AU, noted Hogendorn, “is extremely nervous about setting a precedent of recognition for secession”.

Such recognition reluctance exists not only within the AU, but also elsewhere in Somalia, where many regard Somaliland as an integral part of the country.

This is especially true of the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab, which has publicly called on Somalilanders to stay away from the polls. (The group is suspected of planning attacks designed to either disrupt the ballot or distract media attention from the election.)

One close observer of the country’s political scene said the assumption that a well-run election would boost chances of recognition were “fair” but that any development would likely be “an incremental process, rather than a one-off”.

One reason why these aspirations are unlikely to be satisfied in the immediate future is a fear that recognition would complicate efforts to put an end to the conflict ravaging south and central Somalia.

A peaceful poll?

This election was originally scheduled for April 2008. After numerous postponements, a bitter disagreement over the registration process almost degenerated into violence in 2009.

A number of donor-funded measures, coupled with a sense that chaos would do the recognition cause no good, have helped to reduce the risk of unrest.

There is a new election commission in place that enjoys the trust of all stakeholders. Political parties campaigned on alternating days so as to minimize confrontation. There has been a huge voter education campaign, involving religious leaders, elders, and NGOs. On election day itself, only polling officials and observers are permitted to travel by vehicle.

“We are confident everything will go as planned," Commission spokesman Ahmed Hirsi told IRIN on 20 June.

UCID’s Hassan said: “I don’t think anyone will try to rig it, but if that happens there are enough observers both local and international to call the culprits to account.”

There is widespread agreement that whoever wins, a clear margin and a graceful concession by the losers would help maintain calm.

Riyale, who won a 2003 presidential election by a mere 80 votes at the head of the United People’s Democratic Party (UDUB), appears ready to go quietly should things not go his way.

"If UDUB loses, I am 100 percent sure we'll hand over power," his spokesman, Ali Mohamed Yusuf, told IRIN, insisting however that this outcome was unlikely.

This election will resonate well beyond Somaliland itself, since democratic transitions of power are very rare in the Horn of Africa.

“The election is carrying a huge burden of hope of Somali people [also in the Horn and the diaspora] for an alternative governance system, to show that another way is possible,” said the political observer.

“The stakes are very high,” warned ICG’s Hogendorn. “The election is quite likely to be very close and thus vote count will be very much contested. Close elections can prove to be very divisive, problematic and tense.”

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