Ethiopia preps for June elections

Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia worldwide anticipate general elections this June after a prolonged Covid19 postponement. The event will secure the appointment of members of the House of Peoples’ Representatives and regional state councils. This electoral test will be the first for the ruling Prosperity Party. Opposition political parties say they center their ambitions not only around party winnings but on investments that will pin down a free and fair electoral process. 

When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition broke up with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in 2019, the latter conducted unlawful elections in Tigray and then demonstrated contempt by attacking national defence forces in the regional state. A law enforcement operation, now completed, re-established order amid ethnic tensions, a devastating locust invasion, and the Covid19 pandemic. 

“Our role is to play by the established rules, which is important for a credible election. We will work hard to win but not by whipping emotional and false narratives,” said Berhanu Nega, leader of the political party Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (ECSJ) at an online panel discussion hosted by the Africa Programme, Chatham House.

Nega’s determination for a peaceful process echoes the Ethiopian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) Chair, Beyene Petros. “For the last 35 years, I’ve been trying to get into these electoral activities … promising elections will be fair and free. This time around, there is an improvement in related terms. We are encouraged by the Prime Minister’s personal engagement, society is engaged, and better confidence exists as the drafting process has been participatory,” he said.

According to Birtukan Medeksa, head of the National Electoral Board (NEBE), the sixth national election process is different from any other. It garners confidence from the public and embraces broader reform trajectories founded on legal terms. The implementation of the reformed election law is now in the hands of an electoral commission, which has had a chance to secure constitutional organizations’ autonomy and independence. “The members have streamlined appointment procedures to ensure that the ruling party does not have a monopoly. Political parties have had a chance to express their confidence in the appointed commissioners including myself,” she told the panel. 

None of the four speakers at the Chatham House online discussion had illusions about the electoral process. Petros spoke about grey areas in the implementation of the electoral law, such as leave of absence by candidates in the civil service, limited election resources and lack of clarity as to whether government or donor support will be accessible, and the lack of information about international election observers and monitors. These are only some of the questions that need answers to heighten confidence. 

“Political parties are committed to a peaceful democratic discourse,” said ESDF’s Petros, who envisages a government of national unity as a first step towards addressing the situation of Tigray, no longer represented by TPLF. 

Precedence exists, pointed out the Attorney General, so Tigray’s 38 seats may have a chance of being filled through a delayed election. “Humanitarian access to 80 percent of Tigray federal state has been assured,” he said, and he hoped to lift the state of emergency sooner than later so federal and regional elections can occur.

Medeksa is hopeful that the entire country will achieve adequate security measures, heightened in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. As part of the national security task force, her Commission can express needs and demands from law enforcement authorities, including security mapping, planning, and response mechanisms for all localities. An online information platform to present and mitigate electoral violence is already in place, and collaboration with local authorities and media is ongoing.  Medeksa expects a lot from political parties, local authorities, and the media.

Notably, the National Election Board (NEBE) commitment is to administer the electoral process with impartiality. The 27 directives developed to facilitate the process contain detailed rules and procedures, including the proposals and recommendations of hundreds of civil society organizations. 

While NEBE is actively working with 179 CSO, a target of 300 could provide civic education and observation skills training to locally recruited election observers throughout the country. This task’s enormity is a significant capacity-building uphaul given the country’s diversity of communities and languages. The results of local observation assessments will be interesting to compare with international ones if the expectation from last year’s European Union and the United States commitments to organize international observation missions still holds. 

Medeksa explained that the election process would take place in different stages, starting with the registration of candidates on 15 February for 13 days; monitoring political parties by the Board from 1 March, political campaigning from 31 May, and polling in June at 50,000 locations. 

A total of 547 parliamentary constituent offices, of which 363 are in the forming, await to facilitate the country’s election process, except for Tigray.

Tigray is not the only challenge

The list of challenges is wide-ranging – from capacity deficits to extremist political views led by disinformation and hate incitement campaigns. The Attorney-General’s Office is mitigating such actions while looking beyond the upcoming election into a long-term trajectory of democratic transition.

ESDP’s Petros believes that common ground exists between citizen-based versus ethnic federalism, such as unity, the rule of law, democratization, and human rights. He does not see the dichotomy between citizen-based and multinational federalism any more than a superfluous argument as “all participants are citizens,” he simplistically reminds the audience. “We are a multinational and extremely diverse country, so the issue about group rights cannot be discounted. The ideological distinction is left to the electorate,” he told the panel.

Timothewos admits that a democratic culture is lacking overall. “One challenge is a tendency to resolve issues through violence, an autocratic dispensation that influences a culture without strong democratic ethos,” he said about potential security confronts.

Societal issues are at the forefront for ECSJ’s Berhanu Nega. “There are so many issues unresolved in social life. Long and short-term issues, e.g., the Constitution nature, what kind of political system, politics of citizenship vs. ethnicity, etc. as well as issues related to economics, education, corruption, unemployment, land policy.” The list is long and all the more critical for ECSJ that all parties involved in the debate take up a peaceful role. 

“Identity politics has failed us in the past three years rather painfully,” Nega reminded the audience. “This project is not going to be delivered through Western grace. What is needed for our balance, equity and efficiency, is the principle of unity in a multireligious and diverse community,” he added.

Petros from ESDP expresses a similar concern drawn from a national dialogue’s vision with hopes for national consensus. “The dialogue process is going to take a long time and is not expected to conclude through one or two successive debate sessions,” he said foreseeing a duly elected government that may accommodate the required setting for a dialogue that is inclusive of the grassroots. 

Nega predicts that as the second most populous nation in Africa, Ethiopia’s success in turning the page with a real commitment to democratic dispensation will serve neighbouring countries and the broader continent with significant implications. He drew parallels between the degree to which truth has become a victim and conspiracy has dominated discourse not only in Ethiopia but also in the UK and the USA and went on to clarify that “Democratization in Africa is not a feature of the West but an approach to long term governance.” 

A vibrant civil society and media landscape present in a nascent transitional democracy

The panel drew comparisons between past and present contexts. Some of the strategies used for leading extremist and radical political viewpoints are disinformation and hate incitement and are mitigated through campaigns, law enforcement, and prosecution measures by the Attorney-General’s office. However, the presence of a “vibrant civil society and media” although acknowledged was not discussed, nor was social media in that context.

Medeksa clearly stated there is no level playing field in the media. “We have to work together to level it,” she said and underlined that airtime apportions to political parties depend on numbers of total candidates, female candidates, disabled candidates. Whether civil society and media may monitor, and address hate, incitement, and violence amplification were not specific.

“Access to public facilities also needs to be equal and fair so gatherings can take place,” said Medeksa signalling the establishment of other enforcement methods. “It requires us to involve actors from the government at federal and regional levels and for the rules, procedures, and process to be respected,” she clarified.

Questions from the audience indicate that a broader discussion is desirable for a better understanding of the role of mainstream and social media. The panel did not address outstanding concerns relating to mainstream and social media in the short time allocated. Nevertheless, the questions are worth taking note of below:

  • What rules have been established to regulate the conduct of political campaigns? 
  • What role is expected of mainstream media? [has that body agreed to cooperate?]
  • What are the implications of the Oromo media’s closure and the view on journalists’ safety? 
  • Will NEBE partner with social media companies in the civic education process? 
  • [What mainstream and social media monitoring mechanisms are in place?] 
  • How is fake news and disinformation going to be prevented from tarnishing Ethiopia’s public image and political narrative? 
  • What is Western media’s role as the influencer of the international community? 
  • How will the international meet the local narrative for a balanced portrayal of realities on the ground? 

Some of the above questions are relevant in the context of global mainstream media reporting negatively against the Ethiopian government under the influence of TPLF. In contrast, others understand that “the eyes of the media will be on Ethiopia” throughout the election process.  

The audience was also curious to know about ongoing or planned communications and the extent to which Ethiopian media may release timely and reliable information to the public.

Members of the diaspora wanted to know if the National Election Board would take their media outlets and social media networks into account to combat the spread of fake news, misinformation, and disinformation in the lead up to the general elections. Will there be an effort to monitor mainstream and social media inside and outside the country during the election process? Is the role of the Ethiopian diaspora considered for this?

The panel event was hosted live on the Chatham House Africa Programme Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/CHAfricaProg/live on Feb 3, 2021, 01:00 PM in London.

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