By Awad Abdulsebur Ahmad / Addis Abeba
Ethiopia was supposed to conduct its 6th general election last year in August. However, the elections postponed twice due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic and instability in some parts of the country as well as lack of logistical preparations. In spite of all these predicaments, the nation was finally able to conduct the first round of the election in most parts of the country on the 21st of June. During this part of the election some 47 political parties and other independent candidates have contested for 445 seats out of the total 547 at the House of People’s Representatives, which is the supreme legislative body that elects the Prime Minister. The elections were carried out in seven regions and two city administrations. The participating political parties will contend for 64 remaining seats on second phase of the election to be held on 6th of September 2021. The election has arrived at this phase after passing through a number of predicaments, ups and downs, debates and disputes.
Concerns and hesitations
Ethiopia had previously conducted five general elections since the downfall of the military system in 1991. None of these elections were free, fair and democratic by all standards as they had been marked by intimidations and repressions on political parties, critics, the media and Civic Society Organizations by the disbanded coalition the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that ruled the country for close to 30 years on raw by controlling the electoral board and pertinent institutions that supposed to independently execute the overall election process of the country.
Hence, many observers both inside the country and outside anticipated that the 6th round of the 2021 general elections would be the first democratic election in the history of the nation. In this regard, the ruling Prosperity Party, established in 2019 by dissolving the EPRDF, shoulders a great deal of responsibility to make the election fit at least the minimum democratic values with a view to ensuring the intrinsic wishes and needs of the general public by putting in place an environment conducive for a peaceful political activities.
The government of Ethiopia led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been taking several fundamental measures in a bid to reverse the aforementioned predicaments that the country had experienced over the past three decades. Widening the political spaces by inviting all exiled opposition politicians and activists to return home and engage in a peaceful political struggle, the release of political prisoners and allowing Civic Society Organization to participate in all political advocacy activities, are some of the positive achievements registered by the government during its three years reform activities. Above all, the restructuring of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia in a way that it operates independently totally different from the previous puppet institutions has been considered by many as a critical move to ensure the free will of the people of Ethiopia and enhance the democratic culture of the nation.
However, all these reform measures have been accompanied by inter communal conflicts, civil strife and violent political disputes that dragged the nation into a grave political and social chaos. Several parts of Ethiopia in the past three years have been synonyms of turmoil and unrest mostly triggered along ethnic lines. The conflicts in Tigray, West Oromia, Benshangul Gumuze among other places across the country seem to be the major challenge that extremely consumed the government’s capability to effectively engage itself in the ongoing reforms, though critics argue that the conflicts and instabilities in parts of the country are partially results from the government’s way of handling the situation.
Cognizant of this fact, various political parties, opinion leaders and some western powers from the international community have been demanding a national dialogue before the conduct of the election, arguing that holding election alone is not an instrument to stabilize the nation. The US government and the European Union have been undermining the election, emphasizing the instability in parts of the country and the fact that a few political parties boycotted the election. According to them, it would be difficult to conduct a fair, free and democratic election under the ongoing insecurity in parts of the country. Several observers had been expressing concern that the Ethiopian general election could not be carried out peacefully. It would even exacerbate the existing insecurity in the country, as being pointed out by many. Conducting the election in a situation of instability and conflict would affect its fairness and credibility, many lamented.
Two Oromo ethnic based political parties that are being cited by the US and EU for boycotting the election have not participated in the election. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was not able to register its candidates with in the time frame given by the National Electoral Board due to disputes among its members, though the party has also been claiming that the detention of its leaders, the shutting down of its offices as other reasons for not being part of the election. The Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the other Oromo ethnic based party, has also boycotted the election demanding that the main problems of the country should first be resolved before running for the election.
However, others argue that the parties that ‘boycotted’ the election are insignificant to affect the legitimacy of the election, as 47 political parties and several independent candidates including most popular ones have taken part in the first phase of the election conducted on July 21. According to political analysts, such magnitude of participation by contesting parties is encouraging for a country that had never experienced the true democracy. The engagement of the people to cast their ballot has also been described by several observers as impressive. This signals the desire of the people to exercise democracy so as to bring about significant political and social change to pave the ways for united and integrated Ethiopia.
Other prominent political parties and scholars in Ethiopia also argue that the election is one of the critical events that determine the future fate of the country by averting the looming danger of disintegration. Many argue that the country needs a legitimate government that would act with full responsibilities and power to engage the pertinent actors including political groups, community leaders and other stakeholders for wide-ranging dialogue as such interventions are a process that would require long time. Since most of the root causes of the problems that the country has been facing are of structural nature, which needs several policy reforms including constitutional amendments, a legitimate government that operates for coming five years is vital to addressing these challenges. In this regard, according to observers, conducting the election is a prerequisite to ensuring the peace and stability of the country. The election is one of the key remedies not only to prevent the conflicts and instabilities, but also to salvage the poor from the danger of economic crises that the country has now been experiencing due to a soaring inflation and unemployment. According to the ruling and other contending political elites in the country, conducting the election is the number one priority to help the nation overcome the existing political and economic challenges of 110 million people.
The stance of the US and the EU
The United States and the European Commission are the main actors among the international community that have been showing interest on the election in Ethiopia. They have been voicing ‘concern’ that Ethiopia will not be able to conduct the election peacefully amid the security challenges in parts of the country.
The United States has issued a statement on 11th of June that undermined the election process. “The United States is gravely concerned about the environment under which these upcoming elections are to be held” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.
The statement reads: “The detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments and the many inter-ethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia are obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible.”
A statement released on 25th of June by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has repeated this position of the US. “The June 21 elections in Ethiopia took place against a backdrop of grave instability, including increasing inter-ethnic and inter-communal conflicts, and an electoral process that was not free or fair for all Ethiopians.”
The EU that had been supporting the reform measures to make the electoral board independent has now engaged in undermining Ethiopia’s efforts to changing the electoral landscape of the country. In a statement issued by the High Representative Josep Borrell, it had announced the cancellation of EU’s Election Observation Mission to Ethiopia.
“It was not possible to reach an agreement with Ethiopian authorities on key parameters for the deployment of an EU Electoral Observation Mission in view of the parliamentary elections on 5 June 2021. As conditions are not fulfilled, the deployment of the mission has to be cancelled,” the statement stated.
The “key parameters” indicated in the statement as the main reasons for cancelation of the mission were not clearly mentioned in the statement. However, the government of Ethiopia said that the EU raised preconditions to send its mission to Ethiopia. Notably they requested to bring a technology called VSAT which operates out of the scope of the Ethiopian telecommunications system. The government of Ethiopia was not able to allow such demands, as it is entirely against the national security and sovereignty of the country. Observers are very much muzzled by such demands of the EU as it was unusual that had never been raised during the previous elections in Ethiopia.
The EU also wanted to make a statement about their observation before the election governing body of the country. This was not also accepted by the government of Ethiopia for there is a law that determines such things. Many also consider this a violation of the rights of a sovereign country. Hence, according to observers, both of the two preconditions put forwarded by the EU are completely pretext just to undermine and just to nullify the legality of Ethiopia’s election. The demands are even entirely against international principles and laws that stipulate the respect of national sovereignty of countries.
These two western powers have been demanding the government of Ethiopia to make itself ready for national dialogue with the different political groups including the TPLF before the election.
This clearly shows how the US and EU are trying to pursue their interest by just twisting the hands of Ethiopian government to be submissive and to comply with their demands. Both of them have already suspended aid to Ethiopia in addition to the travel sanction imposed by the US on Ethiopian officials. Notably, it seems that the US administration has started being engaged in weakening the government in Ethiopia by isolating it from the international community. It has tried to solicit support from African countries, including the African Union, calling them to stand against Ethiopia until it submits to its demands. The US and its allies are working hard to crash Ethiopia by putting international pressure at the United Nations Security Council, though futile due to the rejection of the agenda by the other permanent members of the council, notably China and Russia. It seems that the US and EU are trying to create a system of government in Ethiopia to accept direct orders and implement to satisfy their interest.
Election, insecurity and credibility
Of all the odds, Ethiopians have casted their ballot to elect their representatives for seats at the Federal Parliament and regional councils. In spite of all predicaments, the nation was finally able to conduct the first round of the election on June 21, 2021 in most parts of the country. In general, the anticipated security challenges, instabilities and violence acts by some members of the international community have not been occurred.
During this part of the election, some 47 political parties and other independent candidates have contested for 445 seats out of the total 547 seats at the House of People’s Representatives, which is the supreme legislative body that elects the Prime Minister. The elections were carried out on 21 of June in seven regions and two city administrations. The participating political parties will contend for 64 remaining seats on 6th of September 2021, excluding the rest 38 seats that are left for representatives from Tigray region, which still is in conflict between the federal government and the TPLF forces that has been designated as terrorist group by the nation’s parliament recently.
More than 9,000 candidates have been contesting for the seats at House of Representatives and regional councils. Though the number of voter casted ballot during the June 21 elections has not yet announced, some 37.4 million people had registered to cast ballot, which is 80 percent of the projected 50 million out of the total 110 million populations, according to the nation’s election board.
The Electoral Board of Ethiopia has issued accreditation to 45,000 domestic and 45 local civic society organizations to observe the election. Other than 120 international observers including the Africa Union and the East African Standby Force have also monitored the election process. A number of international journalists and media institutions have also been allowed to come to Ethiopia and cover the process without any restrictions.
According to international and domestic observers who have been monitoring the overall process of the election confirmed that it was surprisingly peaceful, fair and free. The African Union is one of the institutions that deployed an observation team led by the former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. In a press conference held in Addis Ababa, Obasanjo commended Ethiopia for holding the national polls in a largely peaceful manner. The mission affirmed the fact that despite some operational, logistical, security, political and COVID-19 related challenges, “overall, the pre-election and election day processes were conducted in an orderly, peaceful and credible manner.”
Domestic election observers comprised of civil society organizations that deployed 45,000 observers in several parts of the country have also commended the overall process except few irregularities.
The participation of contending parties is different from the previous elections at it attracted parties with very popular and influential leaders including the ones that had been in exile. The observers pointed out that the participation of such wide spectrum of political parties is vital to providing citizens with a meaningful opportunity to choose their representatives that in turn elect their leaders. International media outlets that covered the election process admired the event notably the participation of voters particularly on voting day.
Both the election observers and media outlets have witnessed the high voters turn out in their reports. Due to this, the time allotted for voting time by the Electoral Board has been extended by more than three hours in most parts of the country. The courage and patient of voters to wait the long lines in polling stations was very surprising to many of us. Some polling stations had worked until midnight serving the voters.
In the views of many, the efforts being orchestrated by some of the western media outlets and governments to delegitimize the election turned to be peaceful and credible. The election proved the unwavering commitment of Ethiopians to decide on their own fate and destiny through a democratic and peaceful process. The voices of the general public should be respected as it is one of the values of democratic system. Observers describe the recent Ethiopian election and the participation of voters and political parties as a symbol of nurturing a new democratic political culture in the country. Notably the US administration and European Union have to accept the fact that the interest of the large majority Ethiopians demonstrated during the election.
As it has been reiterated by scholars in Ethiopia, the current political situation in Ethiopia and the demands by the US and EU are intrinsically related. It is not about the election, nor the conflict in Tigray, it is all about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt and the politics in the Middle East. The US and its allies have been engaged in ensuring the interest of Egypt as the expense of Ethiopia. They are busy bargaining the GERD to fulfill their Middle East key ally, Egypt by pressurizing the government in Ethiopia to comply with their demands.
However, these scholars also are advising the new government that is going to be established based on the election result in the months to come, should make itself ready to settle the major sources of conflict and grievances by organizing a sort of forum that is inclusive, democratic and transparent.