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Election Eve Reality on the Ground and Possible Post-election Scenario in Ethiopia

By Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD
Tigrai Online, May 22, 2015

I have been following the pre-election debates and the overall spirit and visible excitement of the Ethiopian people to cast their votes on May 24, 2015. Despite some shortcomings exhibited by the contending parties’ representatives, the debates were nonetheless a learning process for the Ethiopian people, the political parties running for office, and the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF) or the ruling party. In one form or another, the debates served as vehicles of enlightenment for the larger Ethiopian audience. It was clear from the outset that the 2015 pre-election debates were going to be by far advanced and civilized compared to the two previous elections of 2005 and 2010.

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However, smooth and civil debates in countries like Ethiopia with no prior democratic culture and some degree of tolerance amongst the fiercely competing political parties could be tricky. For all intents and purposes, Ethiopia’s current politics does not promise a transition to a full-fledged democracy because the latter requires a change of mindset on the part of the people, a thorough psychological preparedness on the part of ruling party and the opposition parties, and most importantly the establishment of robust democratic institutions, that are, for the most part, absent in Ethiopia. The absence of the latter institutions, however, should not be squarely put within the boundaries of the EPRDF or directly attributed to the ruling party, although arguably the Government and the ruling party should be held responsible, at least in the context of leadership, for the promotion of democratic culture. In the final analysis, however, all of us Ethiopians, especially intellectuals and professionals, should be held accountable for the delay or acceleration of the establishment of democracy in Ethiopia.

Despite the indisputable lack thereof of democracy (tangible as opposed to rhetorical democracy), there are some positive developments in Ethiopia. As we all know, Ethiopia made a transition from a predominant feudal society that prevailed for centuries until the outburst of the revolution in 1974 to a jumbled and convoluted socialist onslaught presided over by the murderous Derg regime. It is this sinister legacy of the military junta that the EPRDF has inherited and one could not thus expect a meaningful transition to democracy given the absence of the component parts of democracy.

One naïve argument often advocated by some Ethiopians, including supporters of the EPRDF, is ‘the relatively long duration it took for westerners to establish solid democracies’. This argument is flawed and unacceptable to me because the timeline should not be the yardstick for the founding of democracy; on the contrary, it should be the honesty, diligence, and commitment of a people that must guarantee a more hopeful democratic culture in any given society, including Ethiopia.

The many and variegated policy-related themes brought forth by the various opposition parties and the EPRDF during the debate, though they make sense in terms of outlook and general guidelines for Ethiopia’s forward moving cultural and political evolutions, may however not impress the Ethiopian farmers, industrial workers, entrepreneurs, government employees etc especially when it boils down to the bread and butter issues. For instance, the ideological differences of the EPRDF (developmental state), Medrek (social democracy), the Ethiopian Democratic Party or EDP (liberalism) are worthwhile guideline tenets and good for academic but not for public consumption.

At this juncture of their history, the Ethiopian people are demanding for peace, democracy, and development; and behind the façade of these three intertwined issues, Ethiopians also want to jealously guard the unity and territorial integrity of their country. It is for these main reasons that 36.2 million have registered and obtained voting cards in order to cast their votes for the party of their liking.

So far, every ordinary Ethiopian citizen interviewed by the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) has expressed its wish of a peaceful and just election. The opposition parties also entertained same ideas and the EPRDF seems to have endorsed the concept of a peaceful and just election process. However, we have to wait and see for the practical dimension of the election! At this point, we can only speculate with respect to the implementation and outcome of election 2015, but some symptoms have already been manifested in some areas to indicate that the election may not at all be smooth and peaceful. In order to reinforce the prevalence of negative encounters, entanglements, and impediments, it is important o make an objective assessment of the realities on the ground in Ethiopia. This would help us grapple with the possible post-election scenario and I shall return to this hypothetical immersion at the end of this essay.

What is the reality on the ground in relation to the election in Ethiopia? As indicated above, more than thirty-six million Ethiopians have registered to vote and they are upbeat and enthusiastic. Irrespective on the question of independence, transparency, and accountability of the Ethiopian National Electoral Board, it seems to me it has done a relatively commendable job in organizing the overall election process. More than 45 thousand election polls have been set up throughout Ethiopia; for the 547 constituencies or seats of parliament, 1,828 for the people’s representatives and 3,991 for the regional states will contest during the election.

The Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), popularly known as Kinijit, has fielded 23 candidates in Addis Ababa alone; in the Amhara Regional State, where 6.7 million voters have been registered, 17 parties will contest for election and in Tigray Regional State, six political parties have fielded their candidates for May 24. In the Southern Peoples, Nations and Nationalities Regional State (or simply Southern or Debub), a significant number of the opposition parties, including the Ethiopian Democratic Forum or Medrek, Andinet (Unity Party), EDP, Semayawi or Blue Party, and the EPRDF have been campaigning to win the hearts and minds of the people, but some of the opposition have complained for not getting the election money in order to move around in the Southern State. Overall, 21 parties will contest to win votes in the Southern Regional State. While the relatively small party of Benishangul-Gumuz People’s Democratic Party has been campaigning in its own state, the Tis Abay Western Gojjam potential voters, as in many other areas of Ethiopia, have indicated that they will cast their votes for the party of their choosing. Meanwhile, many university students including the Wolayta Sodo University students have positively responded to the pre-election debates and most of them said, “it has been a learning platform”.

In the Hadya zone of the Southern Region, EDP, Kinijit, Semayawi, Medrek, and the EPRDF have vigorously campaigned to win the support of the people and it looks that the opposition, and not just the Southern Peoples’ Democratic Movement (affiliated to PM Hailemariam) of the EPRDF, has garnered support from the people.

In the Oromia Regional State, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) of the EPRDF has been conducting intensive mobilization of the people, but here too the opposition parties have fielded candidates. Among the opposition, the Medrek leaders, mainly Gebru Gebremariam (the chair of Medrek) and Merara Guidina seem to have enjoyed a large following, while their comrade Beyene Petros encountered a disadvantaged position in his own Hadya zone of the Southern Region.

In Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF/EPRDF) got the support of the people in such areas as Hawzen (eastern Tigray), Samre (central), Shire Endaselassie (western) and Alamata (south). By contrast, according to the VOA Amharic Service, the Arena Tigray of Medrek party campaigners were met with violence. The VOA Amharic Service field reporter said he had witnessed the attacked Medrek vehicle and he interviewed local individuals and found out that the Arena functionaries have been attacked by some 40-50 gangs in Atsbi, eastern Tigray. Eight Arena Tigray members were stabbed and two seriously injured, and among the victims is Hedrom Haileselassie, who sustained head injury.

The VOA Amharic Service also reported similar incidents of violence against the opposition parties in Bedele (Illu Aba Bor), Jimma, Agaro, and Wilkite. The gentleman who was interviewed by VOA/Amharic and who witnessed police intimidation and the confiscation of their belongings (including cell phones) is Bekele Gerba. According to this report, Mderek members were also attacked in Bonga, Keffa zone of the Southern Regional State, and one man was killed in the Gimbo Goata area of the same region.

So, it looks the peaceful, democratic, and just election have already been challenged. I personally am crossing my fingers that Ethiopia would make a smooth transition of power, but it is incumbent upon the EPRDF and its attendant government security apparatuses to maintain peace and order and protect the opposition party leaders and their rank-and-file members. I do not harbor any illusion that the Ethiopian Government would guarantee rights and safety for all activists of the opposition, but I would expect it to do the minimum: Protect citizens from violent attacks, and police should not be instructed nor given the powers to intimidate opposition election candidates and their supporters. This is the minimum a government can do and must do!

Now, I like to discuss the possible post-election scenario in Ethiopia. As I have indicated in several of my previous writings, given the overall political maturity and level of political parties’ organization, and the lack of democratic culture and tolerance, the EPRDF would definitely win the majority of the seats in the parliament. This time, if all goes well and the pre-election violence in some areas subsides, it is highly probable that the opposition parties could win a minimum of twenty to thirty seats and a maximum of fifty to seventy seats in the national parliament. Ethiopia would be better off with a sizable opposition seats in the parliament especially for a sound policy making and overall law-making parameters, and only then can we say with confidence that the country has laid a cornerstone of democracy. However, even if the opposition manages to win a hundred seats (a very unlikely scenario), it may not be easy to challenge the EPRDF.

The EPRDF, as opposed to the opposition parties, has a distinct advantage not only because it is the ruling party and controls the government machinery, but also because it has managed to influence and control the various regional states via its member parties. For instance, it controls much of Tigray through the TPLF; the Amhara State through Amhara National Democratic Movement; the Oromia Region through the OPDO; and the Southern Region through the PM Hailemariam affiliated party. On top of this, the EPRDF controls other regions like Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Afar, and Somali Regional State through an effective patron-client networking. None of the opposition could enjoy the political status of the EPRDF, except for Medrek which comes close in terms of an all-Ethiopia ethnic composition. However, Medrek is seriously challenged by lack of finances and relatively weak organizational capability.

Apparently, the election process is monitored and observed by an African Union Election Observers Team and also by election committees representing the Ethiopian people who would monitor the elections at the respective polling stations. But, it is technically impossible for the AU team and the local observers to monitor and observe the election in all Ethiopia. Moreover, it would be easier to observe the major cities but quite a formidable daunting task to monitor the small towns and rural areas.

If all goes well, Ethiopia will conduct a peaceful, democratic, and just election on May 24 and the outcome will be announced seven days later. On the contrary, if violence ensues in some pockets around the country, it may beget a larger violence and subsequently a much deeper disruption and disorder. This scenario is frightening and unsettling, and Ethiopians in general and the Government in particular should do their best to mitigate violence and disorder.

Ethiopia, of course, should learn from its own experience and the experiences of other African countries like Ghana, Senegal, and Botswana where smooth transitions to power are witnessed every election season. Even Nigeria, the troubled giant of Africa, has conducted a successful election on March 8, 2015 despite some missteps on the part of the ruling party and the incumbent government. Finally, the All Progressive Congress (APC) of the opposition led by Muhammadu Buhari beat Good luck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) by two million votes. Put otherwise, in all 35 states of Nigeria, Buhari won 14.9 million votes in contradistinction to that of Jonathan’s 12.8 million votes. Following the elections, Jonathan conceded defeat to Buhari and Nigerians began conducting their daily routine without any disturbance. This kind of civil process and outcome is what I wish for Ethiopia, and I urge my fellow Ethiopians not to compare Ethiopia with the advanced western democracies but to stay focused with African democracies.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2015. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org

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