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Election in Tigrai: Lest process is over celebrated to the detriment of outcome

Haile Tessema
Tigrai Online August 30, 2020

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Note: This opinion piece has been stretched longer than expected. So, to those with time constraint, how about reading the first and last sentences of each paragraph, especially the long ones, which still is said to give the whole idea, as my former prof. used to advise his students. 

First the positive: With all the political mess and breakdowns of peace & security sadly witnessed across Ethiopia, the fact that Tigrai is stable enough to go to the polls is indeed something to be commended. And the govt. of Tigrai, the public service, law enforcement, civic societies are to be credited for that. As importantly, if not more so, the people of Tigrai are worthy of praise for their tremendous love for peace and respect for law & order. 

Also, opposition party leaders, members and supporters deserve appreciation for committing their time, energy, financial and material resources towards exercising their democratic rights, and presenting themselves as alternatives. 

Nonetheless, voting is a process that is supposed to lead to the outcome of a free, fair and credible election result. Regrettably, the most important elements that would contribute to creating equal level playing field are lacking in the current election process as pointed out hereafter. 

1. Campaigning: “Election campaigns are the means by which candidates and political parties prepare and present their ideas and positions on issues to the voters in the period preceding election day. Contestants use a variety of techniques to reach voters and deliver their messages, including through traditional and new media, public events, written materials, or other means.” 

A lot has been said by the opposition parties about the upcoming election. But there can’t be any denying that it’s limited to the electronic media. And how many households and people in Tigrai have access to television and the internet, anyway? Not aware of any data available, but it’d be fair to assert that the majority of the people, particularly those living in rural areas, are still victims of the digital divide – with no access to the mainstream or social media. 

2. Election / Campaign finance: “… electoral contestants receive public funding for their campaigns, the funding can help provide a more level playing-field and enhance the competitiveness of elections. Public campaign financing includes both direct and indirect funding to political parties or candidates. Direct public campaign financing refers to funds allocated by the state to electoral contestants. Indirect public financing is when candidates or parties are granted access to some services free of charge or at a reduced rate, such as access to public media, use of state property for the purpose of campaigning, printing of electoral materials … State resources belong to the whole population and should not be used to favor any political party or candidate.” 

When it comes to the current election, it’s only recently that the Tigrai State Government made an announcement to allocate a direct funding to opposition parties. But the money would surely have been more useful had it been made available as soon as the decision to hold an election was announced. 

As for as the indirect funding goes, the public media, buildings, equipment, vehicles and other resources are at the ruling party’s disposal. On the contrary, opposition parties have no access to any of that, which certainly is a barrier to conducting an effective campaign and an impediment to political change. 

3. Debates: “An election debate is a public debate held during a general election campaign, where the candidates expose their political opinions and public policy proposals, and criticism of them, to potential voters”. 

Debates are certainly important. But a good number of voters need to be able to have the access to watch them. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than a debating society or club that specifically performs for selected audience “for the purpose of debate and improvement in extemporaneous speaking”. 

On that note, even though a seemingly partisan cheering and jeering has been witnessed following a debate, and a few potential voters might have talked about it, most voters wouldn’t have a chance to watch the debates for reasons mentioned above. 

4. Whistle-stop tours: “Whistle-stop tour is a style of political campaigning where the politician makes a series of brief appearances or speeches at a number of small towns over a short period of time.” 

The opposition parties have reportedly made a few trips to cities, but they barely have traveled to small towns or rural communities. On the contrary, TPLF’s administrative structure that is stretched all the way down to the woreda and tabia levels would compel the rural electorate – through partisan information / misinformation and coercion – to vote for the proverbial devil they know than an angel they don’t know. 

This surely limits the opposition’s competitiveness to urban areas. And with 70 to 80% of the population believed to be rural resident, it’s deemed to be a losing battle for the opposition. 

5. Covid 19: The pandemic or the threat of it is more likely to adversely affect the opposition than the ruling party. To reiterate, while the opposition’s access to voting constituencies becomes limited, the ruling party still has the political and administrative structure that allows it to remain relevant and disseminate its partisan information as it so wishes. 

Subject: Gross Human Rights Violations in Ethiopia by Abiy Ahmed Government

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So, such scenarios deprive opposition parties of an equal level playing field thereby putting the ruling party way ahead in the race yet again. 

The opposition’s role in allowing the unfair practices to continue. 

Even though the ruling party’s angst and protectionist character in terms of creating a political level playing field is well-known, the opposition parties also have done their part in rewarding a free political mileage to TPLF. And here is how: 

a) As a political party that has been in power for nearly 30 years, and fully controls not only the machinery of govt., public service and civic societies, but also propagates that a party, govt. and people are one and the same, it should’ve been abundantly clear that a strongly united political force is the one and only way to oust TPLF. Instead, no sooner than one aspirant opposition party made its desire to form a party known than another came to the surface. 

b) Sawet & Baitona’s political approach and their vision for Tigrai is similar if not nearly identical. Yet, in an era when even parties that are in the left & right end of the political spectrum join forces in order to defeat a dominant power, the two new opposition parties made unforced errors by entering the arena separately. Worse, they spent nearly as much time attacking one another as they did against their common adversary. 

c) A party about which little is known to this very day called Asimba emerged. As individuals or a group of people who presumably are discontented with the ruling party, it’d have been meaningful for them to back a party that is closer to their ideology and favored public policy. Nevertheless, by default or design and for reasons only the leaders would understand, they opted to be partakers in splitting the opposition vote unless they surprisingly pull out from the election on the 11th. hour. 

d) Another newly formed political player, Tigrai Independent Party (TIP), decided to join the race with strangely no political program or election platform. The party’s Tigrigna name at first was announced as “ምንቅስቓስ ናፅነት ትግራይ / ምናት (they perhaps were in such a rush that they didn’t realize the acronym sounded “ምን ናት?” / what is she? in Amahric), which is Tigrai Independent Movement / TIM. Soon after, they changed it to the current “ውድብ ናፅነት ትግራይ / ውናት”. 

Beyond what’s in a name, as unabashedly Tigraian nationalist and unapologetically pro-independence, one would’ve thought that TIP would put its support behind a party that is closer to its political agenda and aspirations. After all, TIP denounces TPLF as undyingly pro-Ethiopia. Moreover, TIP leaders know or ought to know how difficult it is to be a serious contender with just a few months of preparation. Ironically, TIP is also going to play its role in contributing to TPLF’s political longevity by 5 more years. 

On the other hand, if this is about introducing itself and promoting its agenda of independence, TIP has accomplished its mission thus has the time to withdraw from the race, and back a party of its choice. 

e) The opposition parties, particularly Sawet & Baitona played a vital role in calling for an election citing that the constitution needs to be respected, which is plausible so long as there is logic and consistency to it. But, truth is, the constitution is not about timing only. Rather, in addition to being clear on the 5-year term limit, it states that elections have to be free and fair. 

Inopportunely, there is not much – at least not in public – the opposition parties have done to pressure, and bring the ruling party to the table for it to yield to the rules and norms of a real election – campaigning, financing and other related matters – that would lead to a free, fair and credible result. 

Fact is, for a party that ruled for nearly 30 years and with so many blunders that have undermined its leadership capacity and credibility, the ruling party could or would likely have been compelled to come to the table for negotiation. Yet, by giving its unconditional support and failing to come up with a set of rules of engagement, the opposition has empowered the ruling party to continue on its typical my way or the highway path. 

f) Focus on ideology as supposed to more relevant practical issues is another hurdle. The endless debate over revolutionary, liberal or social democracy (where there’s no democracy to begin with); federation, confederation and independence may very well be highly interesting to political enthusiasts. But to the average Hagos and Hadas, it’s job security or employment opportunity; losing one’s farmland to a non-visionary urbanization policy and non-investing investors; the skyrocketing living expenses; feeding one’s own children; the rising crime of ‘hang’; the drastic increase in the number of the homeless and street children, etc. that are the primary concern. 

g) The preoccupation with cities to the neglect of rural areas is another shortcoming. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic or the threat of it is indeed significant. Still, safe alternatives could have been explored had the opposition effectively negotiated on the rule of engagement with ruling party from the get go. 

h) Agreeing – or enthusiastically welcoming – the appointment of an election board filled with members who are not known for their courage to “speak truth to power”. 

i) Trying to shortsightedly separate a leader from a party. It’s bad enough that the politically uniformed try to exempt a leader or president from the shortcomings and/or wrongdoings of his ruling party with such excuses as the problem is not him; his subordinates are getting on his way, etc. But when an opposition party subscribes to that notion – as members are often noticed – they are telling the public not to give up on the ruling party so long as the dear leader is at the helm. 

Instead, no matter how supposedly decent or positive thinking any given leader is, if his govt. is not functioning properly or executing its duty responsibly, opposition parties ought to call, and hammer on the leader for him to show effective leadership or call it quits. 

Oddly, leaders and members of opposition parties in Tigrai are often noticed blaming the foot soldiers (such as with the recently coined term ‘Alematology’) as supposed to putting the blame where it belongs – on the very top. 

To sum up, although opposition party leaders, members and supporters are to be commended for all their efforts of committing their knowledge, energy and time for what they believe in, they should realize that it’s a process that shouldn’t be over celebrated if the end result is going to be a lost opportunity. 

It’s doubtful that anyone – including the leaders and members of the opposition – expect to defeat the ruling party at this juncture. Not because TPLF gets a high passing grade from the electorate, but rather due to the party’s full control of the region as discussed above. 

Subject: Gross Human Rights Violations in Ethiopia by Abiy Ahmed Government

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Still, although not an authority on elections or a polling expert, but rather an ordinary person who actively follows politics, I, for one, expected the opposition to grab at least one third or 63 of the 190 seats in the state legislature that are up for grabs. And that surely would grant the opportunity to stand up and get counted; form a strong opposition with a shadow cabinet; become a parliamentary force to reckon with that is ready to take over when the right time comes. 

Unfortunately, by allowing itself to be a fragmented voice, and having its financial and material resources constrained, it looks like the opposition has most likely given the ruling party the mandate to continue having the upper hand to stay the course. 

So, while engaging in the election has granted the opposition the party and political leaders’ name recognition and valuable knowledge has hopefully been gained, again it’s important to recognize that what’s is at play is a process, and it’s the outcome that matters most in the end. 

Reminder: After sharing this kind of opinion, I get asked by some thin-skinned, new to criticism aspiring politicians and their supporters “what have you done for Tigrai / Ethiopia, anyway?” Oh well, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m doing what I can by sharing my view on why things are going wrong, and suggesting a way out of the same old politics and one party dominance.

So, don’t you blame the weatherman for a bad weather forecast. After all, not everyone can be a politician or a campaign organizer. In fact, in mature democracies, there even are those who make a living as analysts and columnists, not that I see myself as one.

That said, those who disagree with my assessment can of course go ahead and critique the idea. Finally, on the highly unlikely event that I’m proven to be wrong in the next couple of weeks, I’d be one of the happiest to celebrate my own wrong stormy weather forecast. 

https://openelectiondata.net/en/guide/key-categories/election-campaigns/

https://openelectiondata.net/en/guide/key-categories/campaign-finance/

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