Despite isolated incidents of violence, high voter turnout and relative calm have marked the presidential elections Saturday in the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. Saturday morning local time across the northwestern region of Somalia as Somaliland, an autonomous but unrecognized nation, looks to cement its democratic credentials among the international community.
Ballots are being cast for three presidential candidates: Incumbent President Dahir Riyale Kahin, Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo and Faisal Ali Warabe.
Silanyo represents the Kulmiye party, seen as the main rival to President Kahin's UDUB or United Peoples' Democratic Party in Somali. Presidential elections were originally scheduled to take place in August of 2008, 5 years after the previous presidential poll, but instability in the Sanaag and Sool regions in the east forced the delay.
According to the Joint Coordinator of the International Election Observation team, Michael Walls, the voting has gone well. "The mood is pretty good," he said. "There is quite a relaxed environment in most places. Many of the queues are extremely long, but voting seems to be progressing pretty consistently. Things seem to be progressing pretty well. The reports we are getting from the different regions from our observers also are by and large pretty positive."
According to Walls, voter turnout has been high for the region. Reports indicate that Somaliland citizens began arriving at polling stations as early as 3 a.m. Saturday morning and the observer estimated that roughly one-third of Somaliland's 1,070,000 registered voters had cast their ballot by midday.
While the country is mostly upbeat, reports of violence in the southeast have dampened the mood. Walls revealed that a female member of the Somaliland Electoral Commission was killed in fighting between Somaliland forces and the Sool, Sanaag and Cayn, or SSC Militia in a town 35 kilometers south of a Las Anod. The fighting took place in the Sool region, where the militia is fighting for an independent republic of its own.
Walls said the incident was isolated and took place in an area where some violence was possible.
In contrast with its neighbors to the east and south, Somaliland has been relatively stable and democratic for the past two decades. In 1991, when the overthrow of Mohammed Siad Barre in Mogadishu plunged the rest of the country into chaos, Somaliland declared independence and continued governing.
The country now boasts two peaceful parliamentary elections and a presidential election in 2003 which was widely observed as free and fair.
Walls says these elections have so far met the same mark, though a peculiarity in Somaliland culture could see them fall just short of international standards.
"In 2005 and before the term we used was 'reasonably free and fair.' I think in the context of Somaliland transparency is prized a lot more than secrecy," he said. "A lot of votes are cast in the full view of and in consultation with or where the voter is telling the officials and the observers and the agents in the polling station who they are voting for."
"So to that extent there is a lot of practice there that you would say wasn't consistent with a lot of what is thought of as international standards. On the other hand there is a very, very minimal level of intimidation that any of the observers have reported so far," he added.
There was worry that threats of reprisals against voters from Islamist group al-Shabab might keep people from voting, but Somaliland's citizens have been so far undeterred. Al-Shabab controls much of south and central Somalia and is fighting the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu to establish an Islamic state in the Horn of African Nation.
While no incidents involving al-Shabab have been reported, the Somaliland government has taken no chances. The autonomous state has shut down its borders and forbidden movement inside the country.