Western Sahara: Who Should Vote Part III – It is Time for a Referendum – Robert M. Holley

Robert M. Holley
January 11, 2018

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Yes, you read that title correctly. It is time for a Western Sahara referendum. The referendum that needs to happen now is one conducted inside the Polisario refugee camps in southern Algeria.

For years the Polisario has claimed to be the sole legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people even though  the number of Sahrawis living in those camps is clearly substantially less than those of their relatives living in Morocco.  That fact would be abundantly clear if the Polisario and Algeria would simply allow a census and identification exercise to be conducted by UNHCR under international observation and supervision.

In one of their many other frequent self-aggrandizing claims, the Polisario leadership has also insisted for years that unless the Security Council obliges Morocco to accept the Polisario version of a referendum on the future of the territory then “the people” will demand a return to open hostilities.

Its time to put these claims to the test.

In Morocco, since 1997, there have been a series of national and regional elections that have been certified as free and fair by international observers, including in the Moroccan Sahara where voter participation is always strong. When Moroccan officials speak of “the national will,” they have credible elections to give substance to their representative remarks. In the Polisario camps, no such thing has ever been heard of. It was only last week that the Polisario seems to have recognized that a one party “state” carried little credibility in the eyes of real democrats in the world and has decided to create its own version of the “loyal opposition” party. But I strongly suspect that no one will be elected to that bit of Potemkin construction either.

If Polisario wants anyone to take them seriously as being the representative voice of any given point of view among the Sahrawi people, it is time they provide those people an opportunity to have their voices openly heard and their views made clear other than by the unsubstantiated claims of their unelected leaders.

The place to start is with an internationally observed referendum in the refugee camps on whether the people there prefer to negotiate an autonomy agreement with Morocco or continue to refuse such a bargain. Let the people speak for themselves at the voting booth.

Keeping a close eye on the voter registration process for such a referendum might also begin to give us some better idea of just how many legitimate Sahrawis actually reside in those camps.

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