Elections in the Somali state of Puntland were a mixed bag. The vote was peaceful, but it followed an indirect model in which most have no voice. The re-elected president should reconcile with opponents while Somalia draws wider lessons from a failed experiment with democratisation. 

Puntland, Somalia’s oldest federal state, held polls on 8 January, an exercise that came off peacefully despite concerns that bitter disagreements over the electoral model would trigger violence. Under considerable pressure, President Said Abdullahi Deni had agreed just a month beforehand to maintain the clan-based indirect model, ditching a planned shift to universal suffrage. It was likely necessary to use the old system, given the deep distrust the proposed change had planted among the opposition, which could have led to violence. Puntland now needs to address pressing problems like fractures in its security forces and tensions with Mogadishu about power and resource sharing. Before any future effort to adjust the electoral model, Puntland’s leaders should consult widely with political parties and civil society to make sure they are on board. The same applies to Somalia on the national level: resistance is bubbling as the government pushes constitutional amendments paving the way for one-person, one-vote elections slated for 2026.

Stability over Change

Puntland had been aiming to make history in January, organising the first universal suffrage elections in Somalia in decades (though Somaliland, whose declared independence the federal government does not recognise, regularly holds such polls). Since Puntland’s establishment in 1998, elections have followed an indirect voting model used across Somalia: elders from its clans have essentially chosen who they want to represent their clans in the state parliament, which in turn chooses the state president. The Puntland government tried to shift away from the clan-based model, drawing pitched resistance from President Deni’s opponents, who saw the way the effort to enfranchise all eligible adults was unfolding as a veiled attempt to entrench him in power. Anger at the proposed change turned violent in June 2023, when clashes between an opposition militia and government forces in the state capital, Garowe, killed more than 25 people.

The effort to move to universal suffrage started at the local level, with one-person, one-vote pilot elections for councillors in three districts in October 2021. In May 2023, Puntland expanded the experiment by organising a vote for councillors in 37 of the state’s districts. Although imperfect − authorities cancelled the vote in three districts for security reasons, given the presence of armed actors opposed to the process there, and attempted to interfere in others, according to local civil society groups − the district elections generated enough momentum for the government to move forward with the plans for a state presidential election. Resistance from opposition groups forced a rethink, however, as the government began to worry that following through would set off a major confrontation. On 6 December, Deni agreed to maintain the clan-based electoral model.

The plans for universal suffrage failed for several reasons. First, the move away from the clan-based model catalysed resistance among a swathe of Puntland’s elites. Significantly, the change would have spelled decreased influence for clan elders, who wield power in deciding who will hold public office.

Secondly, the shift away from a clan-based model would have threatened an unwritten agreement rotating the presidency among the three main sub-clans of the Majerteen/Mohamoud Salebaan, the state’s dominant clan, each election. Some analysts argue that this system underpins Puntland’s stability. Under this framework, a representative of the Isse Mohamud, who reside predominantly in the Nugaal region, where Garowe is located, would take the presidency after Deni, an Osman Mohamud from the Bari region, ended his term in January 2024. Universal suffrage was viewed by the Isse Mohamud as potentially hurting their prospects, as it would have opened the competition by bringing the vote to the people, who would not be compelled to abide by the clan agreement. Partly for this reason, resistance to universal suffrage was strongest in Nugaal. It was there that the May 2023 district elections were cancelled and the June 2023 clashes occurred. In the end, Deni broke the rotation norm anyway, winning the indirect vote, in part because the late switch of electoral models caught the opposition off guard and it failed to mobilise quickly enough.

Thirdly, Puntland’s government organised the presidential vote and undertook wide-ranging changes to electoral laws without sufficient consultation with important political forces. The opposition cried foul, saying the government was tilting the system in its own favour. It objected to the government’s push in parliament for constitutional amendments cementing the changes, for instance one expanding the number of political parties authorised to participate in elections, seeing the alteration as part of an effort to dilute its standing by introducing more actors into the mix. Two major opposition parties filed challenges to this amendment and others with Puntland’s Constitutional Court, but the court declined to hear the cases before the vote, without providing a reason why. The opposition’s distrust deepened as the government forged ahead without pausing to hear out its critics. Several independent civil society figures echoed the opposition’s complaints in interviews with Crisis Group.

At stake in the amendments, which parliament approved in July 2023, was the nature of Puntland’s political system. A direct vote for the presidency would have, in effect, transformed the parliamentary system to a presidential one, which the opposition worried would concentrate too much power in the executive branch. The government, on the other hand, maintained that the changes aimed at consolidating democracy, depicting the opposition as blocking progress. Both sides deserve blame for their inability to overcome their differences. Clan elders and civil society groups attempted to mediate, but neither side showed much interest in compromise.

Fourthly, the timeline proved too short for the technical preparations necessary for a one-person, one-vote election. In 2022, Somalia held its election for national president, following a protracted struggle. Deni competed in that election, and during that time progress on electoral preparations in Puntland slowed. The distraction meant that by the time Deni turned his attention fully back to Puntland, the clock had run down. The government had only eight months to organise ground-breaking statewide polls between the May 2023 district council vote and the end of its term the following January. The government rushed the logistical work, exacerbating the aforementioned opposition concerns.

Finally, the dispute over the polls split Puntland’s security forces, increasing the danger of violence. Politicians competing in the election controlled different units, and as tensions rose, so did the risk of confrontation. Sources told Crisis Group that the ruling Kaah party has a firm grip on the Puntland Maritime Police Force. The two opposition parties that were most staunchly opposed to changing the electoral system, Mideeye and Horseed, have other forces at their disposal. Mideeye is closely connected through family ties to the U.S.-trained Puntland Security Force based in Bosasso. Horseed, meanwhile, is part of an Isse Mohamud clan network that includes the fledgling Danab militia in Nugaal, which consists primarily of troops who left government forces during the election dispute. The June 2023 clashes in Garowe pitted the Danab militia against the maritime police. These fissures follow a familiar pattern in Somali politics: in times of crisis, security forces tend to give greater allegiance to clans and individual officers than the chain of command.

Moving Ahead in Puntland

The 8 January vote saw Deni win handily over his two most serious challengers, former Somali foreign minister Abshir Hurushe and former Puntland election commissioner Guled Salah. Encouragingly, most of Puntland’s politicians appear to have accepted the outcome, as the array of dignitaries present at Deni’s 25 January inauguration attests. Similarly, Deni’s new cabinet, announced on 29 February, includes a handful of figures from opposition political parties, including Horseed and Mideeye.

The peaceful vote gives the wounds inflicted during the campaign a chance to heal. To be sure, tensions remain, with a smattering of politicians and clan elders loath to accept Deni’s victory. But without the spectre of a looming election, the intensity of intra-elite disputes should subside. After the January vote, the opposition committed to working with the government. In the spirit of conciliation, Deni’s administration should continue to provide opportunities for collaboration. By emphasising accommodation with those who opposed his election rather than restricting his government to a narrow circle of allies, as demonstrated by the diversity in cabinet appointments, Deni can start his second term on a positive note. Should the sides fail to move past the election, the fault lines could threaten Puntland’s long-term stability.

It is crucial in this regard that Puntland’s government build a more cohesive security apparatus. There are two Islamist insurgencies in the state: Somalia’s Islamic State branch, which comprises a small cell based in the mountains around Bosasso, and Al-Shabaab, which is less potent in Puntland than elsewhere in Somalia, but active nonetheless. Both groups could take advantage if fractures caused by the election endure. Unifying the security forces will depend on political reconciliation, as in an atmosphere of distrust, politicians may want to keep men under arms who are loyal to them. The Puntland government should engage the leadership of the units that opposed it in discussions about how to strengthen the chain of command. The government started along this track by pardoning the Danab’s leader and welcoming this militia back into the fold prior to the election. But it will likely have to go further in ensuring that those who left their posts are granted new opportunities, while also taking care that those who remain in the government’s employ regularly receive their salaries.

President Deni should also reflect on why democratisation fell short and how the government can revive momentum without reigniting tensions. Puntland made progress with the historic district council elections and should prepare to shift fully from the clan-based model for the next state elections in 2029. Drawing on the lessons from the January vote – preparing the ground well in advance, addressing the question of shifting power dynamics and, most critically, consulting widely – will be key. A particular question is what role clan elders will play in the political system after the transition to universal suffrage. Somaliland, for example, retains a formal role for these elders by reserving its upper house of parliament for them. In the meantime, an important confidence-building measure will be to conclude the council elections in the three Nugaal districts that were cancelled.

Moving on from the divisive election cycle would give Puntland an opportunity to deal with two other challenges. First, it needs to clarify its relationship with the emerging administration in Sool, a region claimed by both Puntland and Somaliland. In early 2023, armed conflict broke out in Sool, when the Dhulbahante clan based there fought off Somaliland’s encroaching forces. The Dhulbahante do not want to be part of Puntland, either, but would prefer to create a new member state within Somalia’s federal architecture. The Dhulbahante are traditionally allocated the vice presidency and seventeen parliamentary seats in Puntland (in addition to ministerial positions), so resolving the dispute also matters for the state’s internal politics. Somalia’s federal government has recognised the Dhulbahante in Sool as an “interim administration”; still, the clan has one foot there and one in Puntland. Puntland and the Dhulbahante should address this inconsistency by outlining the framework of their relationship and how it will develop, as the Dhulbahante administration itself evolves.

Secondly, Garowe needs to mend its frayed ties with Mogadishu. Deni fell out with Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud after allying with him against Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo”, the previous incumbent who lost the 2022 vote. Deni harboured presidential ambitions of his own, and his relations with the victor have been frosty since the vote. Mogadishu and Garowe also spar over how to divide power and resources within Somalia’s federation. Such disagreement between the capital and federal states is common, but takes a stronger tone in Puntland given its institutional development and capacity to stand on its own.

In January 2023, Puntland declared it would operate autonomously, outside the federation, arguing that the Mohamud administration was seeking to concentrate authority. The stalemate has resulted in a suspension of development projects by international bodies like the World Bank in Puntland, given that Mogadishu and Garowe cannot agree on the parameters. The two sides need to sit down to discuss Puntland’s return to the federation. It will be a hard sell, given the depth of frictions. But the prospect of an indefinite suspension of relations hinders progress in both Puntland and Somalia as a whole, as Puntland’s glaring absence also challenges the latter’s attempt to carry out countrywide reforms.

The Struggle for Democracy in Somalia

Puntland’s experience has important lessons for all those who support the idea of shifting toward deeper democratic practices in the state, and in Somalia as a whole, including but not limited to many civil society organisations. The clan-based model, whereby elders select representatives who in turn elect officials, is thoroughly corrupted and relies on a narrow base. Those with the richest backers tend to rise to the top, while politicians are not accountable to the public, which has few means of sanctioning those who do not deliver. There is no guarantee that democratisation will increase the incentives for political leaders to work for the constituencies they ostensibly represent, much less that it will decrease corruption. Nor is it clear how a one-person, one-vote model would work amid widespread insecurity; voters in areas held by Al-Shabaab or where fighting is raging could be disenfranchised. But disgust with the current system is high, generating momentum to put alternatives into practice.

These sentiments notwithstanding, moving away from clan-based politics will be a time-consuming task – one whose delicacy many outsiders underestimate. Without genuine engagement, such a significant shift has every chance of upsetting fragile balances of power, possibly leading to violence. Somalia intended to move to full franchise ahead of both of the last two presidential elections, but abandoned the idea both times, in part due to opposition suspicions that the incumbents wanted universal suffrage simply to extend their stay in power. In 2022, the government pushed insistently for a one-person, one-vote system despite security risks that made such a vote unrealistic. The heightened political tensions contributed to clashes between rival forces in Mogadishu, leading to a fifteen-month delay in the vote.

In this light, technical election preparations are secondary to preparing the ground for change politically, through inclusive, transparent dialogue. This process takes time but is vital to avoiding conflict during election cycles. Failure to engage in it means that those feeling threatened by change can mobilise themselves in opposition. While some may paint them as resistant to progress, the wider point is that governments also must manage change in such a way as not to undermine stability. Political leaders must also ensure their personal ambitions are not baked into systemic reforms, lest they wind up sowing additional distrust.

Herein lie the lessons of Puntland’s electoral cycle for the rest of Somalia ahead of state-level elections in November and national elections in 2026. The modalities for member state elections are still uncertain, despite the need for clarity and consensus well in advance of the polls. At the national level, the government is pushing for universal suffrage in 2026. By way of far-reaching constitutional amendments, it seeks to extensively alter Somalia’s political system, including proposing a direct presidential election and limiting competition to two political parties, ostensibly to check clan-based competition. It will encounter familiar obstacles: the opposition is already pushing back. The government should tread carefully to ensure it obtains widespread support – broad consensus throughout Somalia’s regions and in its political class, as well as among the public – for any major change so that choosing an electoral model does not in itself create conflict.