In the first direct election in more than 50 years, voters lined up in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia, to cast their ballots in historic municipal elections on Thursday.
International allies of the troubled Horn of Africa nation expressed optimism that greater democracy will spread throughout Somalia as a result of the “historic” elections.
They are the first one-person, one-vote elections since dictator Siad Barre seized power in 1969, although neighboring Somaliland, which proclaimed independence in 1991 but has never received international recognition, has held similar elections.
In addition to fighting a brutal insurgency and natural disasters like a punishing drought that has left millions of people hungry, Somalia is still working to recover from decades of conflict and disorder.
Its international partners — including the United Nations, African Union and a number of world governments — hailed 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.
However, due to unnamed security issues, voting was delayed in three of the region’s 33 districts, including the state capital Garowe, according to a statement released on Wednesday by the Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission.
“Today is a priceless historic day,” electoral council chairman Abdirisak Ahmed said. “Many people believed the victory we have secured today was impossible”.
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”.
Thousands of voters lined up outside polling stations to cast their ballots when voting started from 5 am.
“It was a special day for me,” said Hassan Suleyman, who cast his ballot in the port town of Bossaso on the Gulf of Aden.
“Most of the people are… excited to witness the experience,” the 22-year-old told AFP.
Another voter, Warsame Mohamed, said “people are happy” despite the long wait.
Puntland, a dry, oil-rich territory of northeastern Somalia, proclaimed independence in 1998, and since then, ties with the Mogadishu-based central administration have frequently been hostile.
The next national elections in Somalia will be held using universal suffrage, according to the country’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was chosen by lawmakers a year ago.
Currently, voting is done through a convoluted indirect mechanism in which representatives from clans and state legislatures choose members of the national parliament, who then elect the president.
Prior to a regional parliamentary election scheduled for January 2024, the Puntland local elections are being held.
Thursday’s poll features seven parties, but opposition leaders have already voiced their concerns and accused state president Said Abdullahi Deni of tampering with the electoral process.
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