Despite all the difficulties the country is going through ranging from fights in Tigray to the suffering of civilians as a result of continued attacks from insurgents, the preparations for the sixth general elections seem to be at the center of PM Abiy Ahmed’s administration. Slated for early June 2021, the general elections came after being delayed for almost a year because of the global Coronavirus pandemic that made its landfall in Ethiopia exactly a year ago.
Although it was and still is debatable that the Coronavirus pandemic caused the postponement of the elections that were originally planned for August 29, 2020, the decision to hold the elections this year has also sparked controversies and debates on its soundness given the country wide security issues as well as the pandemic’s higher rate of infection.
Reasoning that enough scientific evidence has been gathered as to how people can protect themselves from the virus as well as the possibility of maintaining physical distancing throughout the course of the elections, the House of People’s Representatives (HoPR) directed the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to proceed with election preparations.
The NEBE has proceeded with preparations for the election despite grave concerns that led some politicians and analysts to call for its indefinite postponement until national consensus through dialogue is successfully carried out. After mapping the more than 50,000 polling stations across the nation, the Board announced the schedule for candidate and voter registration, campaigning as well as polling day. The Board announced it would hold the sixth national elections on June 5, 2020. The elections will, however, not be held in Tigray region where fighting with TPLF forces is reportedly ongoing.
The election preparation process was not smooth to the Board itself because of delays by regional governments in readying office spots and providing security for the Board’s facilities in their respective regions. Moreover, complaints from political parties about security concerns as well as intimidation and detention of their candidates and members in various parts of the country have continued to the final day of candidate registration.
With candidates registration already over on March 9, 2021, 47 political parties have nominated about 8, 209 candidates for both regional councils as well as the federal parliament. The limitations of opposition political parties to nominate enough candidates coupled with the huge financial gap they have with the incumbent, seem to already give the latter a head start in the elections. The opposition camp also affirms such claims although they say they are exploiting all the resources they have to unseat the current administration.
Getaneh Balcha, political affairs head of Balderas for True Democracy (Balderas), told The Reporter that although they have nominated candidates only in Addis Ababa to run for the city council as well as the parliamentary seats allotted to the city, the partnership they have set out to form with other regional and national political parties would enable the opposition avoid vote wastage. He is of the view that the strategy would eventually lead to a win for them.
Balderas runs for the 23 seats at the HoPR and the 138 seats for the city council.
“A win is a question of existence for us as well as the multi-ethnic residents of Addis Ababa. It is our party that can address the multifaceted challenges Addis Ababans face. Hence, our focus area will be Addis Ababa,” he said. He went on to remark “Saving Addis Ababa is saving Ethiopia as the city belongs to all.”
But he admits that there is wastage both in resources and ideas within the opposition camp and votes are dispersed among various opposition parties, giving the ruling party a leverage to accrue majority of the votes. Coupled with the leverage from the state apparatus in its hands, the situation makes it easier for Prosperity Party (PP) to have prospects of winning in every corner of the country. On the other hand, the opposition face limitations both in terms of finance and human capital to equally compete with PP.
Apart from such limitations in resources, Getaneh observes that the structure of the federalism itself bars political parties from campaigning at the national level as the system is dependent on ethnic identity as a political mobilization tool.
“In order to win against the ruling party, we are forming coalition with other political parties whose name would be disclosed up on the conclusion of the partnership,” he said. It has been previously reported that Balderas is in talks with the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) and the All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP) to form alliances for the upcoming elections.
Natnael Feleke, the Communications head of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (aka Ezema), said that the ruling party runs in the elections with a better financial position in addition to the state apparatus at its disposal.
“But we have done our level best to come out competitive in the elections and form a government,” he added. He further noted that they have placed a 143 million birr budget for campaigning.
According to him, Ezema intended to register candidates in 448 constituencies but by 05:30 PM on Tuesday, March 9, 2021, the closing hours of the registration, they only managed to register candidates in 370 constituencies. Natnael pointed out that they faced challenges to register candidates in the rest of the constituencies.
“There could not be an even ground between us and PP to compete in the elections. The blurred line between state and party affairs in this country exacerbates the matter,” he stated.
The plan from the side of Ezema is “creative campaigning” with the limited resources available, Natnael indicated.
The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the once exiled and designated terrorist organization until it was delisted in 2018, also adds another story to these concerns by Balderas and Ezema. Batte Urgessa told The Reporter that although the financial and human resource challenges other political parties face do not include them, the “systematic displacement of the party through detention of its members in their thousands” has forced OLF to go out of the elections.
Remembering that political parties have been raising their concerns regarding campaign financing in various discussions with the NEBE, Batte shows his confidence in their members saying that they are willing to pay the necessary sacrifice for party success.
Political parties vehemently opposed the scheduling for disbursement of financial support to political parties after candidate registration, claiming that the funds needed to be handed over before candidate registration and campaigning as they present huge financial requirements. OLF questions the rationale of disbursing the money after candidate registration.
Batte argues that their membership base would enable them effectively compete with PP in all aspects and they could match the financial capability PP has. However, he went on to explain, the state apparatus as well as the “forced” financial mobilization from various investors that PP carried out would still give it leverage.
He complained about the detention of their potential candidates and closure of their headquarters located in Addis Ababa.
“Our members were detained to prevent them from working on party affairs,” he stressed. He added “this is an effort by the ruling party to annihilate political parties that would challenge it. PP would have been disqualified, had the law been properly implemented.”
But the law is not respected and the NEBE is not independent, he accused. He also added that even if the NEBE wants to function independently, it would not be a strong institution that stands for its legal responsibilities.
In a manner that attests to these narratives, PP is the only party that managed to register candidates in all of the 673 constituencies presenting a total of 2432 candidates to run both for regional council and federal (Parliamentary) seats. Ezema presented 1385 candidates taking the second spot. Enat Party, National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), Freedom and Equality Party, All Ethiopian Unity Party, Hibir Ethiopia Democratic Party, Ethiopian Social Democratic Party. Sidama Unity Party, and Balderas for True Democracy respectively take the spots from third to ten in terms of the number of candidates they presented for the elections, according to data from the NEBE.
With candidate registration already over, the national elections have gone closer one step to becoming a reality. However, opposition parties are still complaining about a number of issues and accusing the ruling party of intimidation and use of the state apparatus. Whether the ruling party would capitalize on its head start is for time to tell though.