A research paper entitled “Low electoral turnout: an indication of a legitimacy deficit?” found out that “trust in democratic institutions such as the parliament increases the probability of turning out to vote, as does trust in politicians.” On the other hand, the paper pointed out that there has been an increase of distrust in governmental institutions in advanced democracies since the 1980s. It goes on to cite prior research which found out “at the same time as distrust in governmental institutions and actors has grown, mature democracies have witnessed a decline in turnout at parliamentary elections.”
If the above findings about the relation between voter turnout and legitimacy in the developed world are anything to go by for developing countries as well, the ongoing voter registration for Ethiopia’s sixth national elections can be considered as an outcry of governmental distrust. As a first step towards electoral turnout, low voter registration guarantees low electoral turnout.
The low turnout for registration
With only a week from the end of voter registration, Chairperson of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), Birtukan Mideksa announced in a voter registration consultative meeting held with opposition parties on April 14, 2021 at Hyatt Regency Hotel that out of the 50,000 polling stations planned to be established as per the electoral map, only 25151 are currently registering voters. With nearly half of the polling stations across the country not yet established only a week before the end of the voter registration period, the NEBE is running acutely against time to realize its plans to create an election platform that would ensure the participation of a projected 40 million people.
The problem doesn’t, however, end there. The number of voters being registered in the 25151 polling stations that are operational is also low. Birtukan, for instance, revealed that only 200,903 people have been registered in Addis Ababa. With 1,662 polling stations sprawled across the city, the figures quoted by the Chairperson indicate an average voter registration per polling station of 121 people. Birtukan described the number of registered voters in Addis as ‘very low’ and remarked that they reflect badly on the NEBE’s performance.
The Reporter visited a handful of polling stations across the capital and found out that the figures are mainly very low with some exceptions. In Nefas Silk Lafto sub-city “Ewket Amba” polling station 15 under constituency 23, a total of 329 voters were registered until April 13. In the same sub-city, polling station 23 that is behind Anbesa bus garage under constituency 16, however, things are much better. A total of 790 people were already registered by the morning of April 13.
In Kirkos sub-city Woreda 4/07 polling station 1, a total of 471 voters were registered until April 15. In polling station 2 of the same constituency, 392 people were registered up until that day. For polling station 3, the number stood at 295 while for polling station 4, it was 299. Polling station 5 featured the lowest voters at 223.
Those who register voters at polling stations with the highest registration rate explained to The Reporter that they registered a maximum of 40-80 voters in their best days. Off days at polling stations with small number of voters registered saw only 2-4 people registered a day.
The above stated facts indicate that voter registration is experiencing two layered problems; the first has to do with low key strides in establishing polling stations all across the country while the second involves the low turnout for registration in the established polling stations.
Problems hindering voter registration
Birtukan stated in the consultative meeting that the major problems of voter registration include: transportation of election materials, inability to establish special polling stations (those for Internally Displaced Persons, the military and students), congestion of electoral schedule, security problems and the negative effect imprisonment and intimidation of opposition candidates has on voter registration.
Transportation was cited as one of the most chronic problems hindering the progress of voter registration activities throughout the country. The Chairwoman identified low response from transport associations, exaggerated prices on auctions to transport election materials and capacity limitation of the NEBE to coordinate the vast allocation and distribution of materials as the major reasons in the transportation of election materials.
In stating problems associated with the establishment of special polling stations for IDPs, the military and students, Birtukan underscored that they have used online registration in addressing students and that they don’t consider the issue as a major problem anymore. She identified Oromia, Somali, SNNP, Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz as regions hosting IDPs. She expressed her frustration at the low level of cooperation they are receiving from regional governments in identifying election coordinators in the IDP camps. “Despite different levels of cooperation from regions, none of them provided us with support in identifying coordinators in the IDP camps. They gave us phone numbers that are not in use; we couldn’t find them,” she complained. She pointed out that the Board made election materials ready, provided trainers and prepared special directives for the special polling stations. She concluded: “as the cooperation of regional administrations was below par, these polling stations could not be established.”
As to elections in military camps, she stated that they received information, despite its limited nature, from the Ministry of Defense stating the whereabouts of military camps. However, she underscored, there is no way for civilians to oversee elections in such camps. She spoke of repeated attempts made on their part to have the Ministry provide them with election officers and reported that there have, thus far, been no response. She concluded: “the special polling stations in military camps could not be established.”
Security is also a major reason impeding voter registration. The Chairwoman identified West Wollega, East Wollega, Qelem and Horo Gudru as the zonal administrations in Oromia region that have security problems. She appreciated the regional government’s active cooperation in identifying areas with security threats while stating that the fluid security situation in those areas has forced them suspend voter registration in the area.
She also stated that Benishangul-Gumuz region has provided them, although belated, with information identifying which places have security problems in Kamashe zone.
Voter registration was also suspended in Chefa Robit, Shoa Robit, Majete, Efeson and Argoba special of Oromia special zone and North Shoa zones of Amhara region, according to Birtukan. She also stated that voter registration has started in Majete very recently. Wag Hemera and Sekota are also other areas of Amhara region where voter registration has been suspended due to conflict with Tigray region. She confirmed that voter registration is in progress in the rest of the region.
In the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ region, voter registration has been suspended in Gura Ferda (four kebeles), Surma special and Zelma, Birtukan explained. Although not addressed by the Chairwoman, The Reporter has learnt that security, along with transportation problems, was one of the reasons for the suspension of voter registration in Afar and Somali regions.
On a general note about security, Birtukan revealed that security is a common problem in all regions despite its varying levels of severity. She also announced that the Board has not generally received enough support from the government to navigate through security problems. Although no election officials have been targeted, she revealed, a polling station has been burned down along with election materials in the Oromia region. An agricultural extension office was also burned down in the region because the culprits thought it was a polling station.
Explaining another one of the problems, Birtukan noted that candidates don’t have to be troubled and imprisoned. She called on the ruling party to respect the law. Out of regional governments, she said Benishangul is leading in imprisoning opposition candidates. She pointed out eight National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) and one EZEMA candidates were jailed in the region. Three ENAT party candidates were also imprisoned in Amhara region. Candidates of Wolaita National Movement, ONLF, Sidama Unity Party and All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) were all at the receiving end of intimidation and imprisonment, Birtukan stated. She also stated that two independent candidates were imprisoned for days in Mesqan. In conclusion, she remarked that the illegal nature of these acts is beyond contention. “Not just the candidates but voters as well feel intimidated and threatened,” she stated.
Although this could be one reason for the low turnout for registration, some of the election officials The Reporter spoke to raised the location of polling stations, voter apathy and the assumption that there is enough time left ahead for registration as contributing factors. On the other hand, potential voters who haven’t registered yet told The Reporter that not having a party of choice has discouraged them from participating in the elections. Others pointed out that they feel like the elections have already been won by the ruling party and they have no business making the process colorful.
In The Reporter’s interview with CCRDA Executive Director, Nigussu Legesse (PhD) published on April 10, 2021, the CSO leader noted that voter education should have come at the beginning of all electoral activities. He criticized the fact that the NEBE has just started issuing CSOs ID. He remarked: “we should have been observing the process during voter registration.”
The road ahead
It seems obvious that voter registration will not be completed according to plan within the specified time set for it. There are rumours that the time will be extended. In the meantime, sensitization activities have to pace up. Towards that end, the NEBE Chairwoman revealed plans for the recent introduction of short mobile phone messages to citizens, allocation of three million birr for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) that provide voters’ education to IDPs, increasing the number of languages the Board uses to sensitize the issue and engaging the media to help reach more people.