Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Reinvigorating the dull election atmosphere  

With barely two months to go before Ethiopia’s sixth general elections, which are scheduled to be held on June 5th, it still does not feel that the elections are just around the corner. The majority of the 47 political parties taking part in the polls are virtually doing nothing meaningful in terms of campaigning, rendering them invisible on voters’ radar. The near absence of a campaign drive coupled with the surging violence in some parts of the country as well as the lack of lively debates on the manifestos of competing parties—which incidentally have been publicized by a handful of parties—could very well depress turnout during the month-long voter registration expected to run through the last week of May. If Ethiopians from all walks of life do not play an active role in the electoral process, they better realize that they will in effect be abdicating the power to control their future.

It goes without saying that all stakeholders and the public at large need to exert the utmost effort to ensure that the elections are free and fair so that they are credible and broadly accepted. That is why it is a matter of vital importance to pave the way for a successful election. Though this duty is shouldered by all entities which have a stake in the outcome of the elections, it is primarily borne by the government and the ruling party. The latter, in particular, is obliged to facilitate an even playing field for all participants committed to a peaceful political struggle. Opposition parties on their part have to understand that everything will be a bed of roses as they pursue their political objectives and as such bear the responsibility to contribute their share in seeing to it that the election process runs smoothly. Other stakeholders like the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), election observers and the media as well have to play an indispensable role towards this end with integrity and impartially.

The obligation of these stakeholders in doing their best to render the elections a platform which takes Ethiopia to the next level is informed by the constitutionally guaranteed right of citizens to determine their own fate. All political parties competing in the election have to enable the public to choose freely the representatives it believes best serve its interest and thereby deepen the democratization process underway. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all political parties to appreciate that contesting an election is not something they decide to do with little thought and preparation; they must not wait for the official launch of election campaigning to earn votes. This is an objective they have to toil for each and every day without waiting for elections to come around every five year. Accordingly, they should try to mainstream the task of doing an effective job of publicizing their political program and policy alternatives in order to broaden their support base. Otherwise, they are bound to fail in their quest to come to power and will be unable to play a meaningful role in augmenting the country’s budding democracy.

Given that campaigning is all about winning the hearts and minds of the electorate, it should go beyond lambasting the track record of the competing party and present better policy proposals which are easy to comprehend. While it’s natural for the ruling party to want to be appreciated for its achievements, at the same time it must come clean about its weaknesses. On their part, opposition parties need to understand they cannot win over voters just by exposing the ruling party’s flaws and are obliged to proffer feasible policies that take into account the facts on the ground. They have to do a better job of developing and popularizing their election manifestos as opposed to arguing, as some do, that they will come up with viable policy alternatives in consultation with the public; as aspirants for office they are the ones which are duty-bound to sell to voters a set of policies they believe are in the former’s interest. And they must put a stop to blaming their shortcomings on others. Voters certainly do not deserve such outdated campaigning tactic. Elections become lively when contesting parties engage in debates on contentious policy issues which grip the public’s imagination. The victorious party is usually determined by who did well in these debates.

All political parties running in the upcoming general elections must see to it that they do not resort to such negative campaigning strategies as smearing the reputation of or inciting hatred towards their opponents since this does no one good and is counterproductive. On the contrary, they owe the public the duty to explain to it clearly what tangible options they put on the table in terms of accomplishing greater economic growth and extricating Ethiopians from poverty; building a democratic system where citizens’ rights are fully respected; broadening the political space; ensuring observance of the rule of law and prevalence of good governance; holding free and democratic elections; combating corruption; assuring the fair allocation of resources, among others. Engaging in theoretical analysis which does not beget concrete actions on the ground is a waste of everybody’s time and must be avoided entirely. If the 2021 general elections are to pass off as exercises that at least genuinely empower the public to exercise its right to freely choose from a matrix of policy choices and lay the groundwork for a true representative democracy, the lethargy characterizing the campaigning of political parties and electoral activities of other stakeholders must give way to ramped up efforts aimed at creating an enabling atmosphere that delivers credible elections.

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