Residents in Somalia’s semi-autonomous state of Puntland cast votes in local elections on Thursday, despite an opposition boycott that led to security incidents in the days before the polls.
A VOA journalist reported seeing long lines of voters at polling stations in 30 districts.
In Bosaso, the largest town and the commercial hub of the region, some voters were in line as long as two hours before polling stations opened at 7 a.m.
Mohamed Abdullahi Qurshe, the electoral chairman of Bari region, said the polling stations closed at 6 p.m.
“The elections were conducted in a peaceful and democratic manner,” said Qurshe. “The vote counting begins immediately after the polls close.”
Among those voting was 64-year-old first-time voter Sirad Ahmed.
“I think it was my lucky day, and I am very delighted to vote in this age and chose the candidate I want freely and democratically,” she told VOA. “I’m very happy.”
Speaking to local reporters in Bosaso, Puntland Interior Minister Abdi Farah Juha said the region has made history.
“Puntland had achieved a significant historic victory, with 30 districts holding peaceful elections,” Juha said. “This is not a victory for Puntland alone, but a victory for whole Somalia and the democratic world.”
One person, one vote
Thursday’s Puntland polls are the first one-person, one-vote elections to be held in more than half a century in the conflict-ridden, fragile Horn of Africa nation, excluding the unrecognized breakaway region of Somaliland, which considers itself as an independent republic.
The country’s international partners, including the United Nations, European Union and the International Authority on Development also have hailed the district council elections as historic.
“The partners believe that Puntland’s experience with direct elections has the potential to inform and inspire the expansion of democracy across Somalia, at all levels of government,” they said in a statement ahead of the vote.
The Puntland local elections were held ahead of a regional parliamentary poll set for January.
According to election authorities, nearly 400,000 people had registered to vote, and a total of 3,775 candidates representing seven political parties, including the ruling Kaah party, were on the ballot Thursday.
Some powerful politicians and members of the Puntland opposition groups in Nugal region in Puntland had boycotted Thursday’s polling, forcing the Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission to postpone polls in three of the region’s 33 districts, including the state provincial capital, Garowe.
A day before the elections, members of the Puntland forces loyal to the opposition leaders confiscated ballot boxes and other election materials from six polling stations in three districts and burned them to prevent the voting.
A statement from the opposition politicians said they were not against a democratic election but described the process as illegal and manipulated by state President Said Abdullahi Deni.
Deni’s term is set to end in January, and the opposition has warned he may try to change Puntland’s constitution to extend his mandate.
Deni has accused the leaders of the central government in Mogadishu of intervening in their democratic process, an accusation repeatedly denied by Mogadishu.
Somalia has been struggling for many years to stand on its legs again after more than three decades of conflict and lawlessness, deadly terrorism, piracy and natural disasters including a punishing drought that has driven the poor, aid-dependent nation to the brink of famine.
Puntland, an arid region in the northeastern tip of Somalia, declared autonomy in 1998, and relations with the central government in Mogadishu have often been tense.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was elected by lawmakers a year ago, announced in March that the next national elections would be by universal suffrage.
Currently, voting follows a complex indirect model where state legislatures and clan delegates pick lawmakers for the national parliament, who in turn choose the president.
Faadumo Yaasiin contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse.