An opposition candidate has won the presidential vote held in the self-declared republic of Somaliland. International observers are hailing what may be the first democratic handover of power in the Horn of Africa.
The chairman of Somaliland's National Election Commission Issa Mohamud declared Ahmed Mohamud Silanyo as the winner of the June 26 poll, defeating President Dahir Riyale Kahin by a comfortable margin.
The election commission chairman says Mr. Silanyo, who heads the opposition party known as Kulmiye, received nearly 50 percent of the votes cast while the president received 33 percent. The outgoing leader came in second out of three candidates.
Despite some voting day violence at polling stations in an area contested by Somaliland and neighboring semi-autonomous region of Puntland, international observers said the election was generally free and fair and had met international standards.
Mr. Silanyo formed Kulmiye in 2002 and ran for the presidency the following year. In that race, he lost to President Kahin by just 80 votes.
In recent days, Mr. Kahin stated several times that he would step down peacefully if he lost. Somaliland observer and author Iqbal Jhazbhay says a smooth transfer of power is now widely expected.
"The president is bound to be held to his word and he will have to abide by his public statements," he said. "I think you will likely see a bit of haggling on logistical issues, but I think there will be a peaceful transfer."
Ahmed Mohamud Silanyo was once a senior minister in the Somali government of Dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in the 1980s. But he quit the government to become the leader of the Somali National Movement, an armed opposition group that fought to topple Siad Barre's regime and helped establish the breakaway region.
Like his predecessor, Mr. Silanyo is expected to vigorously push for international recognition of the region, which unilaterally declared its independence from Somalia after the fall of the Siad Barre government in 1991. The success of the poll has raised hopes among supporters that formal recognition will be granted, opening a floodgate of foreign investment and development aid that Somaliland desperately needs.
But there are Somalis in the disputed eastern part of the former British protectorate, who are vehemently opposed to recognition. The regions of Sool, Sanaag, and parts of Togdheer are claimed by both Somaliland and Puntland, and the two sides have clashed repeatedly in the past for control of key towns. Somalis in the disputed regions, who have clan ties to Puntland, have vowed to fight the government in Hargeisa if their land is formally incorporated into Somaliland.
Further complicating matters is a movement by a group to create a separate administrative region of Sool, Sanaag, and southeastern Togdheer, which Puntlanders call the "Cayn" region. The group firmly rejects Hargeisa's move to formally secede from the rest of Somalia. But it is equally wary of Puntland's desire to control the contested regions.
Analysts say the new president will have to perform a delicate balancing act of pushing for recognition without setting off a conflict that could mirror the chaos in southern and central Somalia.