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    In DepthFree, fair elections: a distant dream?

    Free, fair elections: a distant dream?

    Date:

    As the sixth general elections approach with just three weeks to go, the challenges ahead seem unsurmountable given the ever-intensifying election fraud and security issues across the nation. Leaving aside reports of election fraud coming out of various places like from the Oromia region, fraudulent actions in the Somali region which the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) admitted appear concerning.

    Free, fair elections: a distant dream?

     

    In a recent press briefing, the Chairwoman of the NEBE Birtukan Mideksa disclosed that voter registration has been suspended in certain polling stations in the Somali region because of issuance of voter IDs out of the polling stations.

    While the voter registration is said to be completed on May 14, 2021 after multiple extensions because of security and low voter registration, some polling stations have yet to open. Others started registering voters as late as May 7, 2021, according to NEBE. The four zones of Wollega (West Wollega, Qellem, Horogudru and East Wollega) in western Oromia, Kamashi zone of the Benshangul Gumuz region and the Oromo Nationality Zone in the Amhara region are where these late registrations are going on. However, seven constituencies in the four Wollega zones have yet to start voter registration.

    Despite the extension of voter registration, moreover, citizens that went to polling stations to get registered were told that they have run out of voter IDs, as reported by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRC). Apart from this, people displaced as a result of conflicts in Metekel numbering 55,000 were not given proper response from the Board although they have requested to exercise their right to vote. This is on top of the disturbances in some polling stations in Amhara and Oromia regions, the Council indicated.

    Hence, it called for the NEBE to ensure the right to vote of citizens and deliver the required equipment for polling stations in addition to forging cooperation with the relevant bodies of government to avoid security concerns so that voters can freely get registered and cast their votes.

    Such challenges observed in the process of the elections are also matters of frustration for political parties. Given the fact that the process of the elections is taking a bumpy road, some even question whether the elections would be fair.

    Zelalem Workagegnehu, the Communications Head of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema), says that such mishaps during the electoral process would hamper the transition to a more democratic nation the election is hoped to bring about.

    Highlighting that elections do not just mean the polling day events but also the process, successes depend on free mobility of political parties to promote their ideas, nonpartisan refereeing from democratic institutions as well as transparent counting of ballots, he observes.

    “We were hoping that, if at least these are fulfilled, the elections would pave a path for building democracy the nation aspires to reach. If the process has problems, it is difficult to think of a democratic election,” he says.

    Despite his concerns, Zelalem is hopeful that NEBE’s efforts and the distance they went to resolve problems is appreciable; he is, however, concerned that it would delay the process leading to the polling day.

    “NEBE’s schedules have not been met at various times as witnessed during the candidate registration and the voter registration. Hence, I don’t think they can meet the original schedule of the elections as it has institutional weakness in executing its plans,” he points out.

    Zelalem also complains that because of the delayed executions of both candidate and voter registrations, their campaign plans have been affected and it resulted in the overlapping of tasks in addition to costs incurred in terms of finance and time. And, if the elections are delayed any further, the rainy season will come, making it more difficult for logistical activities and other service delivery. Lack of government’s commitment to support the process is also a problem, he opines.

    For some local and international entities, however, the fragile security situation in various parts of the country poses a risk of derailing the ongoing election process. In a letter five US Senators wrote to the US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, on April 29, 2021, they raised security concerns across the country and called for reforms to precede the planned elections because they feared elections at these times would lead to more violence.

    “The destabilizing potential of these trends [of conflict and displacement] should not be underestimated, especially in light of the national elections planned for June 5, 2021. These planned elections are not currently on track to meet international standards for freedom, fairness, and transparency. Already, several opposition political parties in Ethiopia have announced plans to abstain from the elections due to a lack of faith that they will be conducted credibly. This fear is based in part on the government’s detention of thousands of opposition leaders and supporters, some of whom have been deprived of due process, tortured, or even summarily executed, according to Amnesty International’s May 2020 Report. We worry that, if elections move forward without the reforms required to earn the trust of the Ethiopian public, growing ethnic and political tensions across the country will boil over into even greater violence,” the five senators said in a signed letter.

    In her response to the senators, Birtukan Mideksa argued that political parties and candidates are playing active roles for the planned elections and various measures have been taken to meet international standards.

    “Shortfalls are inevitable given factors such as population size, development deficits at all levels, a nascent democratic culture and an increasingly charged political and security environment. Measures are in place to minimize the effect of these factors on the ability of voters to cast their ballot, and to ensure dispute resolution mechanisms are in place at all levels,” reads her letter.

    Furthermore, she advises, “expectations of all electoral stakeholders must be calibrated in consideration of the challenges faced.”

    Ezema’s Zelalem, however, has another view on the security challenges that the country faces; he says the attacks and conflicts in most parts of the country are caused by interest groups that don’t want the country to conclude the election and focus on other important matters. Hence, various efforts are being made to either delay or cancel the elections. Believing that these conflicts and attacks could intensify as elections approach, he is also afraid that the government could exploit the gap and intimidate voters and candidates to influence the elections to its interest.

    “There should be precautions to avoid government intimidation of people as past practices show the same trend,” he adds.

    However, the problems being observed would affect the freeness and fairness of the election unless they are addressed as soon as possible.

    “Although the institution has good will, that is not enough. They have capacity limitations in executing plans,” he observes.

    With voter registration complete now, the Board will receive complaints observed during the voter registration process and needs to address them before Election Day on June 5. Here, time is of great essence.

    But, as some have previously expressed at various times, there would be contested results that could cause post-election violence. This, in turn, would result in spiraling conflict that puts the country in a precarious situation given the current security situation the country is in.

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