(Travel article by Gunnar Kraft and Sandra Jensen )
Peaceful parliamentary elections
Copenhagen, Denmark, October 5, 2005 (Danish Refugee Council) – The old woman walked slowly into the little hut built of a mixture of wooden sticks and old plastic sacs from UNHCR. Her hands were carefully examined by the young man in the doorway, holding a small ultra violet lamp. Satisfied with the lack of invisible ink, he allowed her to dip her left little finger into the small bowl with ink.
She obeyed his directions and continued to the table in the middle of the room, where the chairman greeted her. She stated her name, age and place of origin and proudly continued with "I would like to vote for Tuke from Kulmiye". The chairman patiently explained that she had to take the stamped ballot paper and go behind the bright green curtain placed in the corner of the hut to vote in secrecy.
But the old woman did not care about the confidentiality and felt too uncertain to place the vote on the ballot paper herself. Instead, the chairman marked the requested candidate and showed the ballot paper to the three party agents who were meticulously observing the procedure. They all nodded to confirm that the vote was marked as the woman wished.
The ballot paper was then carefully folded and handed to the woman. Three calm steps to the ballot box that was hanging in four strings from the roof. With shaky hands, the woman slid the paper into the box. She looked up and smiled. She had cast her vote in the first parliamentary election in Somaliland in 35 years.
Thursday 29 September was a big day for Somaliland. The first parliamentary elections since 1969 crowned the row of recent elections: A referendum in 2001, Local elections in 2002 and the Presidential election in 2003.
Although the parliamentary elections have not been perfect, there has reportedly been much less problems and tensions than in the former elections. The 76 international observers have publicly congratulated Somaliland with its peaceful and reasonably free and fair elections.
In order to support the democratic development of Somaliland, we volunteered to take up the task as international observers in the district of Garadag in the East of the country, one of DRC’s programme areas.
Ballot box in the field
We started one of two polling stations in Garadag town before 6 am to watch the opening of the show. Nothing was ready on time apart from the people waiting in long queues outside. But with care and attention, the chairman managed to get everything in place to open 6.30 and the first votes were cast without problems.
Confident with the procedure in this polling station, we continued our 300 km tour around the district. Ten very different stations later – ranging from a blanket and a ballot box in the middle of the great, grassy fields to concrete community centers – with only a short list of negative comments in our book, we ended in the other polling station in Garadag to watch the closing at 6 pm.
The long queues had been digested and the station could close its doors in peace. The 667 votes were carefully distributed among the parties and counted and recounted and recounted again.
The final results were noted, heavily stamped and signed and ready to be sent to next level of the chain at 1 pm. The chairman sighed and noted that it was time to go to bed after three days without sleep. Indeed a well-deserved rest.
Women eager to vote
The tasks of this election were indeed enormous for a country with such a bad infrastructure as Somaliland. Since no official registration of the inhabitants of Somaliland exists, the voters were registrated when turning up in the polling station.
The only requirements for voting were more than 16 years of age and an ability to speak Somali.
The lack of preliminary registration makes it difficult to assess voter turnout, but it seems to have been high – in our own small survey in Garadag district, we never met any potential voter who had not cast his or her opinion.
Women seemed particularly eager to cast their votes, although only seven had taken up the challenge of running for election.
Upcoming democracy experts
In a country were up to 80% are illiterate and election experience is so limited, substantial voters’ education have been necessary. The National Election Committee (NEC) has tried its best to instruct the voters about the process.
In order to make it easier for the illiterates, each candidate was given a symbol which could be found next to their name on the ballot paper. However, these symbols do not seem to have been promoted heavily enough in the campaigns, and several symbols were also too much alike to serve the purpose.
We cross our fingers that the peaceful atmosphere and the good spirit will continue when the results will be known in a couple of weeks and the 82 seats will be distributed. So far, it seems that the ruling party is up for a major defeat, but since clan affiliations are much more important than the vaguely defined party lines this might not cause any problems as long as all the clans are represented.
Democracy is all about learning-by-doing. If the people of Somaliland continue in this way, they will all be experts in democratic elections in few years time.
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