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© A WWhen refugees turn out to vote and when they raise their voices in participatory meetings or in their homes to criticise their government, they show how much they value the possibility for democratic participation.

Silence descended on the room. Minutes before, some 50 people had been calling out and exchanging views in the final session of three days of participatory democratic meetings. These meetings had been held in conjunction with the parliamentary elections. The head of the polling station prepared to announce the winners, and losers, of the previous day’s elections. In this constituency, only six of the 21 candidates would become MPs. Which six?

The feelings of those listening may be familiar to those who have voted or contested in elections across the world. Yet many other aspects of these elections are unusual. These elections took place in a polity unmarked on most maps, enjoying only partial international recognition as a state. For these were the elections for the parliament in exile of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). SADR is a would-be state authority organised through Polisario Front, the liberation movement of the disputed territory of Western Sahara. The elections, held in February 2012, were taking place in refugee camps in south-west Algeria, where SADR operates in exile.

Through its own laws and constitution, a fusion of SADR and Polisario governs a civilian refugee population in the camps. The exiled population is estimated by some to number 160,000. Despite the competition in 2012 of some 153 candidates standing for 52 directly elected parliamentary seats, there are no political parties in the refugee camps. In such circumstances, what are elections about? Indeed, are they democratic? Addressing these questions sheds light on the workings of the Sahrawi refugee camps. But it also illuminates the forms that democratic engagements can take, beyond a narrow formula of secret ballot multi-party elections.


Western Sahara is a disputed territory situated between Morocco and Mauritania. Both Morocco and Polisario claim sovereignty over the territory, which was partially annexed by Morocco in 1975 when Spain withdrew from its former colony. Polisario demands a referendum to fulfil the internationally recognised right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. Thousands of Sahrawis fled Morocco’s annexation to form the exiled population in the Algerian desert near Tindouf. Other Sahrawis remain living under Moroccan control in the annexed areas. A Moroccan-built military wall divides Moroccan-controlled from Polisario-controlled Western Sahara, and annexed population from exiled. Unlike other cases of annexation and exile, such as Tibet, Western Sahara is not famous. But it is the unfortunate holder of unenviable records, such as Africa’s last non self-governing territory (colony), and its longest-running refugee dossier.

Western Sahara is therefore unusual in itself. Its experiments in democracy are also unusual. Might they nevertheless work towards achieving goals that are widely recognised as democratic? Might the camps’ political system aspire to foster peaceful and popularly sanctioned changes in governing authorities, the representation of diverse political views in the public sphere, and the holding of governing authorities to account? Over time, the refugee camps have seen several waves of reforms introduced to further these goals.

It seems that the Saharawi refugees, whilst conceding to Polisario not to fragment into different political parties until a referendum on self-determination is achieved, are not prepared to wait until then to achieve other democratic objectives. Thus we find that in 2012, 69 percent parliamentary seats changed hands. MPs explain that within broad support for self-determination, different political currents for how to achieve that goal are represented amongst their number. The parliament has the power to pass votes of no confidence in ministers or a whole government, leading to ministerial change. It successfully exercised this right on the whole government in 1999.

The Saharawi refugee democratic experiments are also noteworthy with regard to the dynamics of gender and sectarianism in participation and representation. If these questions are controversial in any polity, many observers of the Arab world consider them to be particularly fraught there. The refugees have been successful in electing female MPs in higher proportions than many of their African and Arab neighbours – 33 percent in 2008 and 25 percent in 2012. Elected officers, in the parliament and beyond, also come from a range of tribal backgrounds, including small and historically marginalised groups. There is a preference in electoral design for voters to choose more than one candidate from a long list. This helps mitigate the potential impact of ‘voting by tribe’, as voters must support a range of candidates to complete their ballot paper.

The democratic experiments in the Sahrawi refugee camps are an invitation for us to enrich our definitions of elections. A harsh home to these refugees, this desert may nevertheless be fertile ground for a budding democracy. When refugees turn out to vote, and when they raise their voices, in participatory meetings or in their homes, to criticise their government, they show how much they value the possibility for democratic participation. Along with Sahrawis elsewhere, they hope that, in the form of a future referendum, democratic participation will contribute to a peaceful end to the Western Sahara conflict.

* Dr Alice Wilson is a social anthropologist and Junior Research Fellow at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. Through her research, she has lived with Saharawi refugee families and observed numerous elections in the Sahrawi refugee camps. An earlier version of this article was previously published in The Homertonian, 16, June 2012, pp. 10-11. Many thanks to Alison Holroyd and Ian Morrison for permission to re-print.


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