Somalia’s Puntland holds ‘historic’ local polls

Somalia’s semi-autonomous state of Puntland was holding landmark local elections on Thursday, although security incidents have led voting to be suspended in some areas.

The polls in the oil-rich region are the first one-person one-vote elections to be held in the fragile Horn of Africa nation in more than half a century, excluding the breakaway region of Somaliland.

Somalia is struggling to emerge from decades of conflict and chaos, but is battling a bloody Islamist insurgency and natural disasters including a punishing drought that drove it to the brink of famine.

The country’s international partners have hailed the Puntland district council elections 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 ahead of the vote. 

Polling has however been postponed in three out of the region’s 33 districts, including the state capital Garowe, the Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission said in a statement Wednesday, referring to unspecified security incidents.

“Our focus is on ensuring safety and resolving differences through dialogue,” it said, adding that new dates for voting in the affected districts would be announced soon.

– ‘Volatile transition’ –

An analysis published by the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA this month said the transition to the new electoral system in Puntland had been “volatile and fraught with obstacles”.

Puntland, an arid region in northeastern Somalia, declared autonomy in 1998 and relations with the central government in Mogadishu have often been tense.

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was elected by lawmakers a year ago, announced in March that the next national elections would be by universal suffrage.

Currently, voting follows a complex indirect model where state legislatures and clan delegates pick lawmakers for the national parliament, who in turn choose the president.

The Puntland local elections are being held ahead of a regional parliamentary poll due in January 2024.

Seven parties are running on Thursday, but some opposition politicians have already expressed concerns over the process and accused state president Said Abdullahi Deni of manipulating the election procedure.

Deni’s term is due to end in January and the opposition has warned he may be seeking to change Puntland’s constitution to enable him to extend his mandate.

A Puntland opposition forum that met in mid-May said 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”. 

“This can be an attempt to seek unlawful mandate extension,” the forum said in a statement.

More than 387,000 voters have been registered for the Puntland elections and will be choosing from among 3,775 candidates, 28 percent of them women, the TPEC said.