Pursuant to the timetable set by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), campaigning for the sixth general elections, due to be held in June, officially got under way at the beginning of this week. The ruling Prosperity Party launched its campaigning with much fanfare by publicizing its election manifesto and candidature symbol at a nationally televised event in which the president of the party, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), said that unlike its rivals the party’s manifesto was not a work of fiction. A few other parties also began campaigning, albeit in a subdued manner. The killing of a member of a prominent opposition party the day campaigning started, the Prime Minister’s controversial statement, and the continuous stream of complaints most opposition parties are lodging with the electoral board does not bode well for the success of the elections. As such it is incumbent upon all contestants to conduct themselves in keeping with the applicable electoral laws to ensure that the elections are held in an environment which enables the electorate to choose peacefully and democratically from the alternatives presented to it.
All political parties planning to take part in the elections are duty-bound to make the necessary preparations to earn the consent of voters. They must always bear in mind that as the ultimate repository of sovereign power the people get to pick through whose person they exercise this power. Prior to setting out to sell their vision to the electorate, they need to do their homework properly. Parties lacking the requisite discipline to engage in a peaceful political struggle and a clear program should know that there is nothing to be gained by appearing on the ballot, that power cannot be gained by force, deception or making empty promises. Therefore, it’s incumbent on each and every party to put the interest of the country and its people front and center and demonstrate that it is committed to the peaceful and democratic pursuit of its objectives. This said it’s obligatory on the part of the ruling party to go the extra mile to broaden the democratic space. It’s then that the playing field can become level for all competing parties.
Ethiopia finds itself at a time when the political space has to be more accommodative of diversity of views. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right Ethiopians should be able to enjoy. Critical to the enjoyment of this right is respecting differences in opinion. Democracy cannot thrive where freedom of expression is solely used to criticize the views of others without offering a better alternative. Whether in political parties or other organizations no two persons should be expected to agree on everything all the time. Developing a culture of engaging in a civilized discourse is vital to the thriving of democracy. Resorting to such undemocratic practice as peddling vitriolic narratives to grab the reins of power is not befitting the times. This backward attitude has for long characterized the leaders of most political parties. These leaders need to understand that if they are to win the hearts and minds of voters it’s of the essence to submit to the will of the people.
The single critical factor in this regard is respect for the rule of law. As long as the law is obeyed, there will be no room for the perpetration of acts of violence or other unseemly activities which engender distrust and apathy. The people of Ethiopia, who are the repositories of sovereign power, just want to be able to choose freely from among the policy options proposed by contesting political parties. Election campaigning and debates are among the important forums through which voters gain the information they require to make a rational decision. That is why all political parties committed to pursuing a peaceful political struggle must above all abide by election laws. Aside from political parties, the NEBE and other stakeholders as well can and should play an instrumental role in the success of the elections. In its role as the ultimate arbiter, the electoral board bears the primary responsibility of guaranteeing that the playing is even for all players. It owes the duty to provide protection to the candidates and supporters of political parties during campaigning as well as to bring to heel parties when they violate the electoral laws they are obliged to adhere to.
The raft of complex challenges confronting Ethiopia has been accumulating for decades. The first thing to do in overcoming the challenges should be to seek pragmatic, prudent and knowledge-based solutions. The irrational and sometimes malicious actions that have been rocking the country are destined to produce ephemeral gains only. As a country which has been undergoing a tectonic shift in the political arena in the past few years, Ethiopia faces the real prospect of sliding backwards if it is unable to move beyond wrangling over inconsequential issues and focus instead on institution building and the rule of law. The most important task awaiting the government in terms of laying the democratization process on a firm foundation is to assure the prevalence of durable peace and stability. This calls for, among others, upholding the rule of law; respecting democratic and human rights fully; guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary; broadening the political space; and undertaking preparations which help ensure that the next elections meet international standards.
The people of Ethiopia have time and again made it abundantly clear that the single most important thing they want out of their leaders is to understand their needs and govern them accordingly. Aside from figuring out what the people they govern really feel and think, the leaders must promote their active participation in finding solutions to the intractable problems besetting Ethiopia. Indispensable to the search for solutions is the contribution of intellectuals, religious leaders, elders, educational institutions, the media and civil society organizations. In particular, politicians and self-appointed activists have to desist from any and all acts that disrespect the public. Sooner or later the public will dish out the same treatment to them. In fact they should endeavor to leave behind a legacy that future generations will be proud of. Ethiopia’s thorny problems cannot be resolved without a vision anchored in the aspirations of its people. This is why it’s of the essence that all stakeholders in the electoral process, especially political parties, respect the rules of the game as they contest the upcoming elections. If the elections are not to suffer from the same lack of credibility that had marred the preceding five rounds, the warning signs that occurred immediately after campaigning began need to be heeded with the seriousness they deserve.