Ethiopia’s awfully bumpy road to elections
In December 2017, the EPRDF held a special marathon meeting on the causes of protests across the country and the way out of the crisis. In the meeting, the party admitted to its shortcomings in governance and decided to undertake political reforms to address the challenges including opening of the political space, releasing political prisoners, and increasing media and internet freedom.
A month and a half after the meeting, there were three days of mass protests that saw blockade of the roads that lead to Addis Ababa. The protests indicated a rejection of the party’s reform agenda, which some felt was not possible without a change of regime. As a result of these protests, a state of emergency (SoE) was declared across the country and the then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, which led to Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assuming the position in April 2018.
Prime Minister Abiy forged ahead with the promised reforms including allowing exiled political parties to return to Ethiopia and repealing a law that had labeled some political parties as terrorist groups. The SoE was lifted and laws that were seen as tools for state oppression were either amended or are currently in the process of being amended.
Furthermore, Abiy showed great zeal to mend the tense and difficult relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea and its longstanding “no war, no peace” stance. Even though the agreement has been questioned by many observers and politicians for its lack of transparency, the international community acknowledged his efforts to forge a relationship between the two states and the move towards peace in the Horn of Africa, by awarding him with the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
When Abiy took office in April 2018, hopes were high that he would bring a new dawn to the country addressing its ethnic fault lines and multifaceted demands from the public. Early on, he reached out to political opposition, lifted restrictions on the media and made peace with Eritrea.
The period prior to the reshuffle of leadership within the EPRDF was characterized by a popular uprising, mainly in Oromia and Amhara regions, which brought the country to the brink of collapse. To avoid the state’s disintegration, the architects of the reform agreed to transition to democracy and be led by the ruling party itself, with new faces taking the helm. Hence, from the outset, it was apparent that the change would be nothing but ‘an old wine in a new bottle.’
Even though the public was demanding change of regime, the then incumbent, after admitting it had failed the public, promised to reform itself gradually according to the demands of the public. In this regard, the party election that propelled Abiy to the apex of power in the coalition engendered hope initially. Accordingly, the early periods of the PM impressed many fellow citizens and many steps were taken to open the political space, suggesting the country was finally on the road to democracy. The PM also repeatedly stated that he is the stalwart to transition Ethiopia to democracy.
Three years on, the PM is about to celebrate his third year in leadership and a lot has happened during that time. The support he garnered at the onset of his tenure seems to have waned and many have started to ask questions related to the promises he made and the actions he has taken thereof.
Despite measures to reorganize some democratic institutions and repeal some stifling legislations, promises made to widen the political space remain to be the Achilles heel of the incumbent. As usual, political parties continue to air their complaints and accuse the government of imprisoning their members and chocking on their activities.
The recent demonstrations in support of the Prime Minister that took place in different parts of the country except in Addis Ababa city and Tigray region are becoming a bone of contention between the government and members of the opposition camp.
Just before many cities across the country were flooded by demonstrations in support of the PM, notifications by at least two opposition political parties namely Balederas for Genuine Democracy (Bladeras) and the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) to stage demonstrations, were rejected.
To add insult to injury, the ruling party had its supporters marching on the streets of most major cities in the country after just a couple of days of the rejected notifications by the opposition parties. The situation was so blunt that some took it as a sign of the ruling party’s march towards becoming totally above the law.
The PM’s supporters, nonetheless, pointed their fingers at some opposition political parties and blamed them for the political problems in the country. Subsequently, NAMA filed its complaint to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) and the Board subsequently warned the ruling prosperity party not to engage in such sham activity again, warning that the Board might take serious measures including canceling the party.
Other opposition political parties also express that they are having a hard time moving around the country to galvanize support among the society. The latest in this regard is the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) whose top leaders are currently behind bars after the death of the Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa.
Adane Tadesse, chairman of the recently annulled Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), said that the PM’s honeymoon period was full of hope for many as a result of his speeches at the early periods of his leadership.
Adane said, “In one of the speeches by the PM at the early stages of his leadership, he boldly claimed that no one is going to be detained based on their view. But the current reality is to the contrary, and many are detained due to their views.”
Furthermore, Adane highlighted that the justice system “serves politics” and such kinds of horrendous political actions are a living testament that previous political problems still haunt the country even after the promised reforms and change of leadership that took effect.
Thus, “The only way to get out of this political quagmire and achieve the promises made years back is to have an all-inclusive dialogue,” Adane recommended.
Likewise, the earlier cordial relationship between many international human rights groups and the government is currently at a crossroads with many of them issuing repeated warnings about the deteriorating situation of human rights in the country. In this regard, international organizations have repeatedly issued numerous statements asking the government to live up to the promises it made.
With the election campaign to commence on Monday, questions over the presence of level grounds are also resurfacing. Different political parties are complaining about the harassment or detention of their members and/or leaders. Some consider these signs as early warnings to the same old election fraud that drained the hopes of the people time and time again.
Accordingly, Adane remarked “While we haven’t discussed and addressed the major political problems of the country, rushing to elections exacerbates the already existing problems, which might affect the survival of the country.”
To the contrary, Head of Political Affairs of Balderas for True Democracy (Balderas), Getaneh Balcha said that the upcoming general elections might serve as a litmus paper on whether the political system of the country is accommodative as promised or not.
“The election is a test for the incumbent to see if the democratic institutions perform their activities independently or not. So by engaging in the election, we are going to challenge the incumbent to live up to its promises,” Getaneh underscored.
Concerning the PM’s promises Getaneh said, “The PM went astray on his promises.” He further explained that mainly two reasons contributed to the unfulfilled promises; the first is the ‘PM’s lack of leadership quality’ and the second one is ‘due to multitudes of problems that the PM inherited from the previous regime.’
Despite the upbeat expectations by some political actors, the June elections face serious challenges. Ethiopia’s party system is extremely volatile. Political parties are weak and fragmented. And the election will take place amid the upheaval in Tigray, one of the country’s 10 federal regions.
Another challenge is the first-past-the-post election rule. The rule makes representation of diverse interests and views in the federal and regional legislative organs difficult. Likewise, some leaders of opposition parties are in prison, limiting the diversity of views and interests that should be represented in the general elections.
The lack of security in some constituencies poses an additional challenge to the general elections. In the regional state of Tigray, the board has postponed elections in the regional council until security improves.
Therefore, the country has a lot of work ahead of it towards realizing the highly sought after changes the people have been calling for. To this end, the Ethiopian government should work to maintain rule of law, mitigate ethnic and religious tensions, and provide space for open dialogue. According to many commentators, doing so would support the creation of a free and fair environment for the upcoming general elections.
While Ethiopia’s political problems have complex historical and cultural origins, many of them can be addressed by adopting a political culture that prioritizes dialogue as a means of managing different views. International partners are also urging the Ethiopian government and political forces to engage in broad based and comprehensive national dialogue to address core issues and reach a political settlement ahead of the 2021 national elections.
The upcoming 6th general election is yet another historic chance for Ethiopia to hold free and fair elections. Through democratic competition, Ethiopia can avert conflict, strengthen its democratic institutions, and begin the transition to democracy.