After repeated delays, the breakaway republic of Somaliland will hold its second presidential election in eight years on Saturday. International observers and analysts are expressing cautious optimism that the poll could set a positive example for the troubled region.
Eight hundred local observers and 75 international observers are fanned out across Somaliland to monitor the presidential poll. Slightly more than one million people are registered to vote and voter turn-out Saturday is expected to be around 75 percent.
Speaking from Somaliland's capital Hargeisa, the joint coordinator for the international observer group, Michael Walls, says he has been impressed by the level of public enthusiasm and by the transparency of the electoral process.
"There inevitably are a few problems or complaints. But really, in terms of the overall picture, things look very good," said Walls. "The electoral commissioners were changed and the new commission has exceeded everyone's expectations in terms of their competence and integrity. The surprise from my point of view has been to see how smoothly the campaigning has been running and there seems to be more of a carnival atmosphere amongst party supporters."
Wall's assessment is in stark contrast to the situation in Somaliland in 2009. At this time last year, there was rising concern that this election, which was originally scheduled to take place in April 2008, might not be held at all. An election set for September 27 was scrapped after a bitter disagreement over the registration process nearly plunged Somaliland into violence.
The political stand-off pitted incumbent President Dahir Riyale and his ruling United People's Democratic Party against two leading opposition parties - the Development and Solidarity Party (Kulmiye) headed by Ahmed Mohamed Mahamoud Silanyo and the Justice and Welfare Party (UCID) led by Faisal Ali Warabe.
The crisis was defused through a number of donor-funded measures, including setting up a new, independent election commission. Political parties also agreed to campaign on alternate days to avoid confrontations.
U.S.-based Africa analyst J. Peter Pham says a peaceful and well-conducted election could significantly boost Somaliland's long-held argument that the territory is politically mature and stable, and vastly removed from the turmoil and violence witnessed in central and southern Somalia.
"Irrespective of who wins, a transparent, free, and fair election dispels the myth that all of Somalia is in this primordial chaos," he said. "It is possible that (good) governance can happen and can emerge. It would also be a wonderful sign for the entire region. We are in a region where holding a free, transparent and fair election is somewhat of a challenge."
Political analyst and author Iqbal Jhazbhay adds that a transparent, credible poll is also important to Somalilanders, who view it as being crucial to the territory's efforts to win international recognition. Somaliland unilaterally declared independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991. But despite the establishment of democratic institutions, it is still considered by most of the world as being part of Somalia.
In recent years, the territory has supported closer ties with the West in the hope that it will bring international recognition of its independence.
"In my latest book on Somaliland, I make the point that one of the domestic disciplining forces is this national craving and desire to have international recognition," he said. [In] many of the meetings held between political party heads and foreign observers here in Somaliland, this issue does come up. There is no doubt that holding of this election will help its [Somaliland's] case. It is a question of how fast this process would unfold."
The African Union would have to be the first international organization to extend recognition to Somaliland. But the pan-African body has been reluctant to do so for fear it could spark aggressive secessionist movements in other parts of the continent.
There is opposition against recognition among Somalis, too, who regard Somaliland as an integral part of the country. The most violent opposition comes from al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked extremist group that aims to unite all of Somalia and beyond under an ultra-conservative branch of Islam.
On Thursday, al-Shabab's top leader Ahmed Abdi Godane issued a warning against holding democratic elections, which he claimed was un-Islamic. Godane, who hails from Somaliland, is believed to have planned the October 2008 near-simultaneous suicide car bombings in Hargeisa and Bosasso, Puntland, which killed and wounded dozens of people.