Thursday, February 9, 2023

Infusing culture of responsibility into Ethiopian politics

Ethiopia held its much-anticipated sixth general elections this Monday. Originally slated to be held in August 2020, they were delayed twice by a myriad of challenge. The first was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to shelve them for June 5, 2021. The Board again postponed the elections to June 21 due to the extension of the deadline for voter registration and to allow more time to iron out wrinkles. The polls were not conducted in around 20 percent of Ethiopia’s 547 constituencies, with some areas deemed too insecure and others beset with logistical problems. Elections for these constituencies have been scheduled for September 6 though date when polls will go ahead in the Tigray region, where there is an active law enforcement operation, have not been formally announced yet.

Although precise figures have not been released by NEBE, the long queues for polling stations seen across the country where throngs of people patiently awaited their turn to vote even after it was extended by 3 hours show that turnout from among the little over 38.2 million Ethiopians registered to choose among 46 parties and over 9,500 candidates was large. Billed as the first free vote in Ethiopia’s history, the elections largely passed off peacefully. Aside from an attack in which two security officials and one local official were killed in an attack by an armed group in the Oromia region, there were no major outbreaks of violence. This said some opposition parties alleged irregularities in certain constituencies occurred in different parts of the country. A coalition of local civil society organizations for election also said that it recorded a number of critical violations that could undermine the electoral process. It noted the majority of incidents it observed on Election Day include the missing of election materials; the prevention of observers from carrying out their duties; the presence of unauthorized persons inside polling stations; and instances of intimidation and harassment during the voting and counting process.

Ethiopians should be thanked for the enthusiasm with which they turned up and voted for the candidate/party of their choice. In conscientiously discharging their civic duty to vote they reaffirmed that every vote indeed counts. If voters had preferred to stay home, in effect they would have ceded the right to be ruled by a government they installed in office through their consent. At the same time the individuals elected in elections where turnout is low would be hard pressed to claim that they truly represent the will of the people or have a clear mandate to enact laws. A democratic government draws it legitimacy from the citizens who elect it, and this legitimacy is threatened when few citizens exercise their democratic right to vote. Regardless of who emerges victorious at the end the fact that Ethiopians expressed their preference as to the party which should govern them represents a win for Ethiopia that they should be proud of. 

In spite of the irregularities that marked the polls, the leaders of various parties have seemingly acknowledged that they were free, fair and credible. They have stated that while they reserved the right to take up with NEBE and the courts any complaints they may have, they were willing to accept the verdict of the electorate. Such display of responsible behavior hopefully heralds the beginning of a new culture of tolerance that has been missing in Ethiopian politics, which has long been afflicted with intolerance and myopia to say the least.  While senior leaders of the ruling Prosperity Party have reciprocated the sensibility demonstrated by their rivals, its rank and file members, who are accused of being behind the slew of irregularities that attended the polls, need to own up to their misdeeds and play a constructive role in fostering a civilized brand of politics in Ethiopia.

Politicians worth their salt know that in their tradecraft the beginning of wisdom is respecting the will of the public as expressed in free and fair elections. Truth be told the people install the government in office so that it serves them. As such it is incumbent up on officials and employees serving at every level of government to respect and submit to the will of the people. The same holds true for forces arrayed in the opposition camp and social media commentators. It’s the utter disregard for this obligation that is primarily to blame for the widespread grievances of the public, which in turn gives rise to conflicts. Democracy, justice and prosperity cannot be thought of in the absence of peace. Everyone stands to lose from a zero-sum politics that does not countenance a civilized and constructive dialogue. This has been amply demonstrated countless times over the past couple of decades. That is why it’s imperative for politicians of all stripes to do the responsible thing and respect the will of the public manifested in elections in order to infuse a culture of tolerance into Ethiopian politics.

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