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On the Eve of Ethiopian Election 2015

By Genenew Assefa
Tigrai Online, May 19, 2015

Predicting election results could be a risky venture if entered without taking a good stock of the fact that confident forecast is not always accurately reflected in outcome. A case in point is the recent much-talked about English election where, despite early prediction to the contrary, Cameron surprised the pundits by beating Miliband in a bid for the premiership. In contrast, it is safer to predict voter turnout particularly on the eve of a polling date as attempted below vis-à-vis the fifth-round general election in Ethiopia due on Sunday, May 24, 2015. Given the record-high voter registration, one can indeed surmise a higher threshold of turnout than any of the previous ballots held in Ethiopia since the founding of the republic. Likewise steady increment in first and second generation of voters points to greater public embrace of the democratic principle of governance by the consent of the governed and robust public confidence in the integrity of the national electoral process.

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Yet judging by the election debate so far, there does not appear much to choose from in terms of alternative program that could conceivably sway voters away from the reigning pro-poor polices of rapid development. A weakness well known  to the incumbent whose debating teams invariably preface their opening remark by a public reminder of the glaring lack of a viable alternative to warrant any of the rival parties' election bid to public office. Perhaps it is an indirect admittance of severe deficiency in generating workable policy options why none of the opposition parties expect nor intend to legally, at least, unseat the incumbent come Election Day. Take Medrek, for instance, the runner-up in the last vote with no small appeal outside the de-facto capital city of the Ethiopian opposition. Though still the biggest contender in the present election bout and the likeliest to regain the loss it suffered in the last race, Medrek however only competes for 270 of the total 547 parliamentary seats (49%). Even if by some miraculous stroke of luck, Medrek were to carry every Woreda where its candidates are up against no lightweights, it would still be short by 3 seats out of the 273 required minimum to form government. This apparently is not lost on the leadership since like the rest of the contestant parties Medrek’s strategy seems to win as much Woreda as possible, knowing that there is no warrant more. But the price for Medrek is defeating the incumbent in Ambo and Hadiya Sekea election regions where the party’s top leaders, Dr. Merera Gudina and Professor Beyene Petros, expect to regain their previous parliamentary hold.

Of the two Medrek frontline candidates, Dr. Merara scorns most the incumbents' politics of recognition as a divisive ploy without ever revealing what he himself exactly stands for or what ideology he follows. In any event, it is well known that when his not lecturing at Addis Ababa University on the science of good governance against which he cites the EPRDF as an aberration, Dr Merara runs for election in his native vicinity of Ambo where he claims to cut his political teeth. Keenly aware of Ambo's restless Oromo youth, Dr Merara deftly plays up his ethnic identity to match his strident campaign catering to the baser instincts of the very electorate he claims as his inherited constituency. Given the recent flare-ups in and around Ambo, the lecturer-politician could regain his parliamentary seat by stocking the amber of the disquiet in his district. Regardless, a stalwart Medrek MP can only be a welcome addition to the next elected legislative chamber which hopefully would be more reflective of the country's political plurality. However, given his history of dismal parliamentary performance, a logical compliment of his lack of clarity, Dr. Merara is unlikely to give voice to an alternative doctrine of law-making.

Whereas, unlike him, who understandably feels ill-at-ease with any left oriented ideology, Professor Beyne Petros by contrast openly runs on a social democratic platform. No doubt it is impressive that in this age of neoliberal hegemony, Beyene extols the virtues on social democracy as a desirable and viable alternative to the EPRDF's revolutionary democracy. May be so at a speculative level, but the puzzling thing is how the professor can square his left-off-center political theory with his habitual practice of lodging complaints against the EPRDF to every Western embassy in the country, including to consulates of states who had long abandoned social democracy. Granted foreign diplomats are interested in what the doyen of the opposition figures has to say  what EPRDF does when the donor community is not looking. Curios though they are for anything they might have missed, Western embassies are adept at filtering information regardless of the source. Besides, given the thinking behind their diplomatic mission, they are less likely to lend a sympathetic ear to Beyene's misplaced complaints against EPRDF’s policy of promoting land grab, or iniquitous distribution of urban acreage to a narrow circle of private investors. Nor can the donor community be expected to be moved by Beyne's social democratic discontent with what he perceives as a yawning gap separating the new small slice of emerging middle-class and those left behind. A more puzzling question of serious political implication is how Beyene's promises of wealth distribution is to earn him the required margin of vote in his election district of Hadiya zone where the majority of the people live off smallholding agriculture. In any event, if the Medrek chairman is elected, it cannot be on the appeal of his egalitarian outlook derived from German intellectual response to the iniquities of   industrial capitalism. But a more likely scenario under which Byene could cross the post first  depends on the strength of his ability to exploit local discontent i.e. grassroots dissatisfaction with poor implementation of  generally popular rural-development policy of the democratic development state.

In contrast, the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) runs on liberal election platform, confident in the eventual triumph of the promises of liberalism over the organizing principles of the dominant party which recognizes no hierarchy between individual and collective rights. In line with its liberal disposition, the EDP leadership has moderated its pre-2005 illiberal political stance and inflammatory rhetoric, despite lacerating opposition backlash which jolted the liberal apprentices in the party's ranks. Weathering years of hostile campaign, orchestrated by former comrade-in-arms, still up in arms, in a figure of speech, the EDP has managed to field 165 candidates for the House of Peoples Preventatives (30% of the total 547). Obviously this is way below the number of seats needed to unseat the incumbent, particularly in a country of overwhelming peasant voters where liberalism resonates less with their aspirations than the reigning rural-based- development strategy. But in the unlikely event of no clear majority winner in the one would think that the EDP would more inclined than any of the contending parties to form a coalition government with the EPRDF. Provided, that is, that the later is so inclined and not opt for a runoff.

The sad part is that the EDP is disadvantaged by first, the resignation of its last chairman, Mushe Semu: Who, it must be said, deserve the lion’s share of the credit for EDP’s turnaround and de-radicalization. The second disadvantage to EDP's election bid is the deactivation, so to speak, of Ledetu Ayalew, the firebrand of the party back in the days of unrestrained Woyane bashing. Apparently Ledetu himself feels disadvantaged   by the lingering air of suspicion and controversy surrounding, what to many of his former fans, remain a puzzlingly  abrupt shift of political stand in favor of the EPRDF. He reckons that hostile private-media defamation prevents him from playing a visible role in the political arena where he was  once hailed as the Ethiopian Mandela by the very crowed that no sooner clamored for his head.  Evidently, Ledetu is biding his time in anticipation of a favorable climate of public opinion to come where he can bring to bear his experience and maturity on the ramp EDP, but still  counting  on a  liberal turn in this country.

Speaking of experience and maturity, the conspicuous absence of either trait characterizes the Blue Party which, nonetheless, has fielded the fourth highest number of candidates äč 139 in all äč for the House of Representatives (25%). To its credit the Blue party has gone through the legal process which qualifies it to run for office, engage in election debates, propagate its views, stage its own protest demonstrations etc. If only rowdy, the Blue party has on several occasions and venues held outdoor rallies, and proven that peaceful protest is a living right in Ethiopia. The trouble is the Blue party protests every government undertaking, including public contribution to the Great Renaissance Dam, the least controversial issue in a society where the elite relish  controversy. But nobody knows for sure what the Blue party stands for, or what vested interest it represents, much less what polices it has in mind that can surpass the incumbent’s impressive record of 12 successive years of double digit growth.

Apparently, one thing has not yet dawned on the opposition parties in general and the Blue party in particular. None seem to understand that in a country of mass poverty, citizens are unlikely to punish a party running on an unassailable record of double-digit growth  and reward a contender party without assurances of delivery of at least a notch a higher figure of growth than  delivered by the incumbent. In other words, if the Blue party fails to secure a strong parliamentary foothold as a steppingstone for a grander ambition of wresting power from the EPRDF, it can only blame its own inability to match EPRDF’s development promises backed by stellar performance to boot,  as attested even by its detractors.

Wrestling with the nuts and bolts of election politics is apparently beyond the imaginative scope of chairman engineer Yelekal Getnet of the Blue party. A man who for all his leadership ambitions was left-out from the race by his own miscalculation of picking the most saturated Woreda where first-time entrants had to be selected or excluded from the race by a transparent lot. Even outside the race he remains the dreary agitator that he is without Ledetu's flare, nor aptitude or tantalizing public appeal. Yet from what the public has seen and heard from  the  Blues so far, neither Yelkal nor his youthful deputy seem to be eager to play by the rules when the rules stand in the way of  sedition. One telling sign that the Blue party is tinkering with subversion is the havoc its youth wing wrecked during a government public rally held to denounce IS's slaughter of Ethiopian refuges in Libya. By any reckoning what happened on that solemn day is tantamount to declaration of ethical bankruptcy matched only by the moral decrepitude’s of the IS monsters. More disturbingly, when viewed in light of the Blue party’s constant stocking of the flames of sectarian Wahabi rage in our own backyard, bracing as it were to burst into the open. This is just only one indicator that the Blue party may well be gearing up to ignite mass convulsion modeled on the old CUD’s manner of whipping into frenzy the same edgy inner-city youngsters under the same pretext of vote fraud. This much can be adduced from the unequivocal utterance of the party's public relations officer, who in a recent Radio Fana  election debate reminded his audience that election is not the only rout to public office.  What he did not let his audience in on the role  and task of the small conspiratorial Wahabi circle of extremists in lining-up unsuspecting Muslim women on the front row of the planed confrontation with the riot-police.

Strange as it is, the marriage of convenience between the Blues and the veiled Wahabi sectarian cabal may earn the party a sizable Muslim vote. But not enough to claim election victory ala the old CUD, who instigated street turbulence in the outside hope of upending the constitutional government. The defunct CUD at least had come close to simulating a color revolution as it had enough parliamentary candidates, an army of NGOs and countless private press on its side, each eager to do its bidding. With fewer friends, save in the Diaspora, the Blue party has to rely on street backing, but even then the leadership has to come-up with a different set of excuses to provoke another round of post-election crisis. For, given the size of its candidates to the House of Peoples' Representative, not even its fire-spiting street minders and face-book militants can back the Blue party in the event it were to lay claim to have won election 2015.

As it stands, it is only the EPRDF which, by virtue of its 501(91%) parliamentary candidates of the total 547 seats, can look forward to another term in office. Obviously, the inevitable split in vote bound to be cast to the opposition works to EPRDF's advantage and could even wake another round of incumbent sweep of the ballot contest. Though election outcomes have a way of defying predictions, on the existing scenario of the factors at play, however, the EPRDF is likelier to hold on to more than the majority of its parliamentary seats. If, on the other hand, a repeat of last election result were to occur, questions are bound to be raised about the merit of the first-cross-the-post system, suggesting that Ethiopia might consider switching to a system of proportional representation. What is certain is that, regardless of outcome, election is here to stay as there no other path to legitimate exercise of political power under the Ethiopian constitution.

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