Ethiopians went out to cast their votes in the first phase of the sixth national elections on June 21, 2021. Considering the weight the votes carry in determining the country’s pace of transition into a democratic system, it is no wonder the eyes of voters, observers, party representatives and election officials are stuck on the ballot papers.
The sixth national elections have finally become a reality. After a couple of postponements within the span of a year, there was fear that the challenges could once again catch up with the efforts of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). However, the NEBE decided to hold the election in two phases, hold the first round on schedule (June 21, 2021) and find a breather until the second round on September 6, 2021.
Accordingly, the national elections were carried out in seven regions and two city administrations on Monday, June 21, 2021. Political Science scholars such as Professor Kassahun Berhanu of Addis Ababa University gave the election a vital role in determining the fate of the country. When he spoke to The Reporter a couple of weeks ago about the measures that need to be taken to avert the danger of becoming a failing state, the Professor raised conducting peaceful and fair elections as one of the most basic requirements. Unlike a number of other scholars and politicians, Prof. Kassahun is of the view that national elections should precede the national dialogue forum both internal and foreign political forces are calling for. His reason is that the country cannot go on a couple more years with a government that has already extended its tenure in power as a national dialogue forum could take that much time if it were to come before an election.
Now that the elections have already been held, time will tell if they are going to have that much of an influence in determining the country’s trajectory.
Vox pop releases of various media indicate that a large number of voters sought to win peace by casting their votes. A handful of voters The Reporter spoke to indicated that they expect stability, peace and normalcy restored with the establishment of a government chosen by the people. They expect the mass killings of the past three years to stop and the government to take full responsibility for any killings, displacements and destruction of property that may arise going ahead instead of blaming some armed groups. Those with this view expect the ruling Prosperity Party to win the elections.
Others The Reporter spoke to think that the national elections present a good opportunity to punish the government that has been ineffective through the past three years and replace the existing parliament with a variety of parties. Those with this view also expect the ruling Prosperity Party to win with opposition political parties making up to one-third of the parliament and hope that the situation transitions the country into a vibrant democratic system in about ten years.
Towards achieving these goals, voters have showed incredible resilience to cast their votes in the national elections. Dawit Taye of The Reporter came across neighbors who went out to the polling station at 3:00 a.m. With voting scheduled by the NEBE to start at 6:00 a.m, their case shows the level of anticipation among the people.
This was also not an isolated case of people appearing at polling stations way earlier. In most towns The Reporter assessed during Election Day, voters turned up to polling stations earlier than election officials. Sisay Sahlu of The Reporter reported from Gondar that voters were already standing in line at 5:00 a.m while election officials and observers came until 6:30 a.m. Dawit Tolesa of The Reporter also reported from Ambo and Ginchi that voters stood in line at 5:00 a.m in both towns. In Hawassa, Yonas Abiy of The Reporter reported that voters turned up at polling stations at 4:00 a.m.
The fact that there were delays in starting voting on time in numerous polling stations across the country meant that voters had to endure hours of suffering to exercise their political rights. Voters had to wait for hours in some polling stations before they could see voting start; in other places, they were told by election officials to go back home as they have run out of ballot papers. Many others were also told the time allotted for voting has come to an end and that they need to leave the polling station. None of these issues resonated with voters; however, as they persevered to cast their votes well past midnight.
The people seemed like they understood the weight their votes carried. They demonstrated their commitment to change things for the better. With all opposition Oromo parties boycotting the elections and the resultant understanding that PP Oromia would claim all the 178 seats, people knew that the ruling party would easily grab the votes to keep itself in power for the coming five years. 95 House of Peoples’ Representatives seats outside of Oromia would give the ruling party the 50+1 seats needed to form government. A common belief among voters who expect peace and normalcy after the elections is that if the killings, displacement of people and destruction of property were to continue, the mandate handed over to the government by the people could be taken before its five year tenure is over.
The NEBE riddled its way through security and logistics challenges to realize the first phase of the sixth national elections. This is obviously not an opportune moment to hold elections. However, the country has managed to hold peaceful elections and credit is due for governmental offices that helped make that a reality.
The NEBE provided parties and observers a platform to relay their complaints through voice and text messages. The Board then responded to these complaints. A representative of EZEMA at the Woreda 2 Anbessa Garage polling station in Nefas Silk Lafto sub-city told The Reporter that the clash of heads between opposition party agents and election officials regarding the latter’s claims to help elder voters and their subsequent marking on ballot papers was resolved after their complaints reached the Board. This case can be taken as an instance of the tremendous effort the Board made to set irregularities straight.
On the other hand, there have been numerous limitations. As indicated above, election officials showed up late in some polling stations. The Reporter found out that election officials failed to show up on time in numerous polling stations in Gondar, Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa. In a sub-polling station in Yeka sub-city, election officials only showed up at noon. That means elections started only in the afternoon.
Another Election Day problem associated with the NEBE is the faulty distribution of election documents. There were widespread cases of polling stations receiving the wrong regional council documents. For instance, Nefas Silk Lafto Woreda 2 Anbessa Garage polling station received regional council documents that were meant to be sent to Bole sub-city. Election started at 9:30 a.m in that polling station with borrowed documents from a nearby polling station. Such mix ups played their own roles in delaying the voting process and exacerbating the suffering of voters.
A couple of people The Reporter spoke to also blamed the NEBE for not denouncing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) social feats at a local restaurant as, in their opinion, it constituted campaigning on Election Day.
The Reporter’s team of election reporters reported numerous election irregularities across the country. Some of the major irregularities The Reporter reported in major towns are stated below:
In Gondar, Gondar University student council leader, Habtamu Debalke told the Reporter that over 1,000 university students registered in 39 student polling stations were banned from casting their votes. Election officials acknowledged the problem and stated that it happened following the adoption of online registration of students. Apparently, students who were registered manually at polling stations had to re-register online for their names to be included in the list of voters.
Another irregularity committed by election officials involves misinformation of voters. In some polling stations in Gondar, voters ended up electing four candidates to the regional council as instructed by election officials. After an hour of voting, they found out that only two candidates have to be elected for the regional council. That left 100, out of a total of 488 registered voters, votes void.
Complaints from voters and political party agents include election officials guiding voters on what place to put their marks on and presence of unauthorized PP members in and around polling stations. The Reporter also witnessed election officials put marked ballot papers that belonged to a voter who lost her voter’s card into an envelope which has her name written on it. Although the voter protested, the election officials insisted that it was standard procedure.
As in Gondar, election officials in three polling stations in Bahir Dar also told voters they could elect four regional candidates when in fact they could only elect two. Their votes were rendered void upon the act. The presence of unauthorized PP officials in and around polling stations was also a problem.
The Reporter witnessed a sense of fear, especially among election coordinators in polling stations in Ambo as OLF-Shene, the armed group designated as terrorist by the House of Peoples’ Representatives, earlier issued threats against them.
In Qebena Woreda-1 Remuga polling station -1, EZEMA agents were not allowed to go into the polling station. It was only after efforts by election coordinators that they managed to finally carryout their duties. There was also reported harassment and intimidation of observers in Qebena and Wosherbe polling stations. Campaigning activities were spotted in polling stations in Emdeber constituency. Helping out the elderly was allegedly used as a pretext to change votes in Enate polling station.
Hawassa city and Sidama region
Polling stations ran out of ballot papers at 11:00 a.m in Hawassa town where the Southern nations, nationalities and people’s region overlaps with the newly established Sidama region. Despite expectations that the papers would be sent within a short time, they only arrived at 6:00 pm when the polling stations were expected to close. Voters in Hawassa cast their votes that night in line with the extended deadline that allowed polling stations to close at 9:00 pm. However, the 19 constituencies in Sidama region only voted the next day as the papers did not reach until then.
Bishoftu and Mojo towns
The code error on ballot papers for the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) in polling station 04 06 ሀ 759 disrupted the voting process and proved to be an inconvenience to voters.
At Nefas Silk Lafto woreda 2 Anbessa Garage polling station at Jomo Michael and Jomo Sefere Selam polling station 24 at jomo 1, the city council documents sent from the NEBE were those of Bole sub city and Akaki Kaliti respectively. The Reporter observed that lack of orientation to voters and the resulting demand for help from election executives created discord between election officials and the observers who questioned the former’s neutrality. Only PP agents were present when voting started in Jomo Sefere Selam polling station 24.
Nefas Silk Lafto sub city Jomo 1 postal office polling station 17 a woreda official meddled with the process of voting before she was escorted out of the premises. The absence of election officers at the sub-polling station of Yeka constituency 28 polling station 7 until mid day disrupted voting. All five of the election officials assigned to a sub-polling station there failed to appear on Election Day. The ballot papers sent to the sub-polling station were also way lower than the number of voters. 250 ballot papers were sent to the sub-polling station that has 481 registered voters.
Report of CSOs
More than 176 Civil Society Organization (CSOs) from across the country established the Coalition of Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations for Election (CECOE). The coalition released a preliminary statement on the activities on Election Day. The coalition received reports from the 2,200 observers it sent to the 7 regions and 2 city administrations where the first phase of elections took place. CECOE observers monitored polling station opening, voting and counting procedures, and announcement of the vote count.
Accordingly, the coalition found out that polling station officials were present by 5:30 a.m in 93 percent of the observed polling stations (2,052). Polling stations are supposed to open at 6:00 a.m. The report indicated that 98 percent (2,116) of the polling stations opened by 7:00 a.m. 4 percent (92) of the polling stations observed were established in NEBE prohibited areas. While political parties are forbidden to campaign for 4 days prior to the election and campaign materials are not allowed within 200 meters of the polling stations, 12 percent of observers (256) reported that there was campaigning or campaign materials in or around the polling station they visited.
CECOE’s report further indicates that 99.8 percent (2,133) of polling stations visited by observers had ballot boxes that were shown to be empty during opening of polling stations. An average of 4 polling station officials was present in polling stations while other observer groups were present in 91 percent (1,937) of the polling stations.
94 percent (1,975) of CECOE observers reported that they were able to observe the entire voting process without limitations; whereas, 1 percent (12) of CECOE observers were not allowed to remain in their respective polling stations for the entirety of the voting process for reasons not related to COVID-19 protocols. An additional 6 percent (119) of CECOE observers reported being asked to leave the polling station for some period of time because of COVID-19 protocols.
Critical incidents reported by the coalition range from polling stations not opening, to suspended voting and counting, from incidences of violence to presence of armed groups and issues pertaining to improper procedures and counting. Over the course of the voting process, observers reported over 400 critical incidents, of which 338 have since been verified by the CECOE data centre.
The majority of incidents observed on Election Day include: missing election materials, observers not being allowed to observe, presence of unauthorized persons inside the polling station and instances of intimidation and harassment during the voting and counting process.
CECOE observed the following positive aspects
- The passing of the election peacefully;
- Despite some shortcomings and gaps in the voting process, the NEBE has made efforts to fill the gaps;
- The high voter turnout and patience of voters to cast their ballots;
- Competing parties have contributed significantly to the peaceful conclusion of the election process;
- The active participation of women in the polling stations observed by CECOE;
- Efforts made to make it as convenient as possible for mothers with children, the elderly and others in need to take part in the election.
Another positive aspect The Reporter would like to highlight is the reaction of opposition politicians to preliminary results posted on polling stations. There seems to be a progressive trend among opposition politicians in acknowledging defeat and congratulating winners. With official results not yet released by the NEBE, opposition parties such as EZEMA have chosen to wait for the Board’s announcement of results before they pursue legal measures to solve their election related problems. At least all parties to the election seem to agree on the need to keep things peaceful and not jeopardize statehood.