Djibouti heads to the polls in parliamentary election marred by opposition boycott

Djibouti (Caasimada Online) – Djibouti held parliamentary elections on Friday, amidst a boycott by the main opposition parties, in what is seen as a precursor to a potential successor for the country’s President, Ismael Omar Guelleh.  

Guelleh has been the country’s leader since 1999, ruling with an iron fist. His ruling Union for Presidential Majority (UMP) party is one of only two parties taking part in the election and is expected to win.  

With just 230,000 eligible voters choosing 65 MPs for a five-year term, the law mandates that 25% of the seats must go to women. However, voter turnout appeared low, and local media reported a lack of enthusiasm among voters. 

Djibouti is a strategically vital country at the mouth of the Red Sea. It has attracted foreign investors and military powers for its unique location. 

In April 2021, Guelleh was re-elected for a fifth term as President with a whopping 97% of the vote. However, his leadership has faced criticism over its crackdown on press freedom and dissent.

The main opposition parties, including the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development (MRD) and the Republican Alliance for Democracy (ARD), have boycotted the elections, claiming they are neither free, transparent, nor democratic. The MRD described the elections as a “charade” and questioned their legitimacy. 

In the previous legislative ballot in 2018, the UMP emerged as the winner, securing 58 seats. The only other party running is the Union for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), which won a handful of seats in the last election. 

Benedikt Kamski, a Horn of Africa researcher for Germany’s Arnold Bergstraesser Institute, said that public interest in the election is “very, very limited.”

With Guelleh reaching the age limit of 75, set by the 2010 constitution, he is not eligible to run again. Given the country’s clan dynamics and the balance between the two main communities, the Issa and the Afar, this has sparked speculation about who will be the next President.  

Kamski suggested that a successor could be chosen before the 2026 presidential election.

Under Guelleh, Djibouti has leveraged its strategic location to invest heavily in ports and logistics infrastructure, receiving funding from abroad, particularly from China. 

The country has also remained stable in a volatile neighborhood, flanked by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, and across the sea from Yemen. Foreign military powers, including France, the United States, and China, have established bases there.