What’s at stake in Ethiopia’s upcoming elections?
Except for the 2005 elections, Ethiopians do not have a positive memory of a fair and free election from the previous five general elections held between 2000 and 2015. The 2005 historic election allowed significant number of opposition parties to get seats in the parliament. In the subsequent elections, the incumbent EPRDF, a coalition of four parties, won 100 percent of the seats. After this election, only one opposition member did manage to get a seat in the national parliament in 2010 elections. Currently, there is no opposition party with a seat in the parliament.
Mixed reaction to elections
Unlike the previous five elections, with the coming into power of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), hopes were high for the 2020 sixth general elections which were expected to be held in early late August. Exiled opposition parties were allowed to enter the country and continue their political struggles peacefully, while political prisoners were released from prisons en masse. In order to instill trust in the electoral board, a former federal court judge and an opposition politician in exile, Birtukan Midekssa, was appointed to lead the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).
Laws governing civil society were amended and others that were previously criticized by various rights groups for being stifling were/are under revision. These include the media law and the highly abused anti-terrorism proclamation. These proclamations were repeatedly said to have been used to arrest and prosecute journalists as well as rights groups that work in the fields of freedom of speech.
In addition, the Prime Minister’s administration dismantled the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a four-party coalition with five other regional parties working with it as affiliates. As Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, indicated, EPRDF was criticized for its rigidity in creating a political environment where a hegemonic political thinking was allowed to persist. Abiy then formed the Prosperity Party (PP) that embraced the eight parties from the members of EPRDF and its affiliates. One of the members of the coalition, the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), did not join the coalition reasoning that unlawful dissolution of the EPRDF and merger of the parties into one party is tantamount to installing a unitary form of government. Since then, the TPLF and PP exchange frequent tit for tats; the former says the latter is heading down on authoritarian route while the later blames instabilities in the country on the former.
But all the high hopes seem to have dwindled now and the expectations for the upcoming election both by the opposition and the citizens receded because of the government’s “unilateral actions to extend the elections without proper participation of and consultations with the opposition” as the International Crisis Group indicated recently.
Pertaining to the impacts of the COVID-19, which was first reported in Ethiopia on March 13, 2020, the NEBE decided to extend the national elections by nine to 12 months, few months back. Following this decision, the government chose to go for constitutional interpretation to help extend the terms of the executive and the legislative bodies of the governments both at the federal and regional levels. But the opposition and a breakaway party from the EPRDF opposed to the postponement of the election as well as the extension of the terms of the executive and the legislative bodies on the grounds of lack of constitutionality in doing so. But, the PP argues it did within the premises of the constitutional framework.
One source of discontent in the decision comes from the independence of the constitution interpreting body – the House of the Federation. As members of this chamber are appointed rather than elected, the house is fully controlled by members of the incumbent party.
These concerns coupled with the recent detention of prominent opposition party leaders including Lidetu Ayalew, a member of the National Congress of Ethiopian Democratic Party, and Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba from the Oromo Federalist Congress party, worries of whether the upcoming election would be fair and free as promised by the head of the electoral board are heard frequently. Many citizens expect the upcoming elections to be a platform to exercise unreserved political rights and see the light for democratic transition. Apart from this, some citizens want to see alternative policies for the justice system reforms as well as economic development.
Atnaf Berhe, Program Director for Center for Rights and Democracy (CARD), observes that while it is commendable that PM Abiy’s actions to reform the electoral system in terms of ensuring independence in the institution, other sectors like the mass media and access to information laws and the justice system reforms are still lagging and the reform should extend to these areas too.
“The justice system reform has been hugely criticized in the past but all is the same now; there are still political prisoners in the country and the police arrest people without warrant. The police do not also respect orders from the court while the prosecutors bring up charges that are unfit to establish the accusations they present,” he argues also adding that, “the justice system has regressed.”
Ethiopia and the principles of ACDEG
Ethiopia signed and ratified the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) in 2007 and 2008 respectively, and is expected to establish a culture of democracy and peace in the country by putting in place the proper legal and procedural frameworks. In addition to establishing this culture, the Charter expects signatory countries to show commitment to free and fair elections through the establishment and strengthening of “independent and impartial national electoral bodies responsible for the management of elections.”
While the Electoral Board in the country has been reinstituted with a new legal framework and new members of leadership, the Prime Minister’s announcement that he wanted to pressure the Chairperson of the electoral board to reverse the decision following the decision to postpone the sixth general election as a result of COVID-19 created suspicion that the board might not run independently as perceived.
“I called the Board’s Chairperson after they disclosed that they could not hold the election because of the announcement of the state of emergency to prevent COVID-19. I asked her if she thinks the opposition, whom she supports, would not be successful had the election went on according to the original plans,” the PM said adding that she even said she would resign if he thinks that she is not independent.
Some understood this to mean he wants to show the public that she is independent of his administration of the party while others perceived that this indicates he wants to intervene in the electoral body’s nitty-gritty and exert pressure on the decision-making process. This, too, creates the doubt that the principle of the ACDEG that calls for an independent electoral management body may be upheld.
Dissenting: Opposition Parties
This extension of the sixth general elections has been rebuffed by TPLF and the party has organized an election at regional level standing against the decision of the House of the Federation. This has itself created a feud between the federal and the Tigray regional governments which some fear may even lead to military confrontations despite officials from the governing party ruling out this option. Tigray’s general elections were conducted on September 9, 2020. However, the federal government has not yet announced the date for the general elections across the nation.
Legal amendment praised by opposition
On the other hand, the amendment of the electoral and political parties’ registration proclamation disallowing civil servants from running in elections is another positive move praised by the opposition. Previously, there was no distinction between government and the incumbent party. Civil servants gave much emphasis to party affairs than service provision and the influence of political loyalty in the military and other security agencies was highly lashed. In the new electoral and political parties’ registration proclamation, it is clearly indicated that if public servants want to run for office, they should leave their post. Measures like removing party affiliated members from the security apparatus have also been taken to detach politics from the security apparatus including the military. The PM himself had repeatedly emphasized that the military should loyally serve the nation despite changes in the political leadership.
In addition to this, some 107 opposition political parties and the incumbent signed a non-binding code of conduct. The code of conduct sets the rules of engagement for Ethiopian parties across the spectrums in the coming years.
In spite of the efforts to improve the political landscape in the country, the shortcomings in the amendment of the laws governing elections and political parties as well as the government’s “unilateral decision to postpone the national elections and its terms” without involving the opposition political parties have curtailed the progress. Many from the opposition side fear that Abiy’s administration won’t allow free and fair elections and/or accept the outcomes should it lose.
Conflicts, Internet Shutdowns, Journalists Safety
Conflicts across the country that erupt now and then also pose a different challenge to the upcoming elections, thus the much-anticipated political transition. Whenever there is news of conflict in the country, it has become a trend to shut down the Internet and limit movements of both journalists and rights groups from place to place. A very recent example for this is the conflict in the country that happened following the killing of a renowned Oromiffa musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa. The Internet has been fully shut down for 20 days following a conflict that resulted in the killing of civilians.
A journalist for Reuter’s news, Dawit Endeshaw, says that internet shut down has been a huge hindrance in the country when it comes to covering main events in the country and there are still simmering concerns in the upcoming general elections.
“Internet shutdown has become a trend now in this country, and it will definitely become a huge challenge for us to cover the elections as it has become customary to rely on digital platforms as a source of news and other information,” Dawit added.
For Atnaf, the issue of internet shutdown has huge implications in terms of information dissemination and human rights. He argues that while internet shutdown can hinder the media from covering major events, it will also limit the rights of people to get heard like in cases of human rights violations.
“Internet shutdown in the country is a common thing and we have even seen blockage of text messages in the country after 12 years. So, it is inevitable that there will be an internet shutdown in the country in the upcoming election as the trend shows and the government will exploit it for its own political gains,” he states.
In elaborating this, Atnaf says that most of political discourse is carried out on the online platform and any kind of internet shutdown would be considered as disruption of the election as this will limit access to information. As human rights and other groups rely on online platforms to gather and disseminate information, any internet shutdown will also affect the election outcome, he added.
The administration of PM Abiy Ahmed was also hailed by the international media outlets for improving the media landscape by allowing exiled journalists to enter the country and unblocking formerly barred news websites but it is equally being criticized for monopolizing information as well as direct detention and intimidation of media houses in the likes of the Oromo Media Network and Asrat TV. Journalists were repeatedly arrested. A recent statement by the Ethiopian Journalists Association condemned these arrests of journalists and called for a quickened trial of the suspects.
For Dawit the current media landscape is returning back to what it was before the new administration took power. This is manifested through the challenges like denial of access and mobility journalists face whenever they want to travel across the country and report.
Atnaf also buys this side of the argument and says that journalists are poised to face various challenges during elections. Apart from limited financial and human resource the media have and the limited experience journalists in the country have when it comes to election reporting, security forces and non-state actors are going to be a huge challenge, he indicates.
“The police are going to be a big challenge in the upcoming election as they will limit mobility to some areas,” he told The Reporter, adding that, “non-state actors could also challenge journalists and other civil society organizations by disrupting their activities and meetings.”
Ed.’s Note: This article is supported by the Africa We Want Project which mobilizes civil society support for the implementation of the African Governance Architecture, which is being implemented with funding support from the European Commission.