Ethiopia’s Election and the Erosion of Democracy

Ballot Box

“This election is only ceremonial” stated Yilkal Getnet, President of Semayawi (‘Blue’) Party, in an interview with the Mail & Guardian on the upcoming election in Ethiopia in March 2015. The election, which is set to take place on 24th May 2015, has attracted widespread criticism from opposition parties, journalists and human rights groups. As illustrated by Yilkal Getnet, these groups view the election as unrepresentative and heavily weighted in the ruling party’s favour. These groups contend that the ruling party – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – have censored opposition voices and interfered in the electoral process, which by its nature already favours the ruling party. The democratic credibility of this year’s election is seriously waning and after the only opposition MP who won a seat in 2010’s election announced that he will not stand this time around, it appears that the opposition may be giving up on the electoral process altogether.

In the last general election in 2010 the EPRDF and allied parties were recorded as winning 99.6 percent of the vote, which unsurprisingly raised questions over the legitimacy of the election. An EU observer mission produced a report which was critical of aspects of the election and stated that the “separation between the ruling party and the public administration was blurred at the local level”. The EPRDF government, led by Meles Zenawi, which had been in power since it ousted the Derg military junta in 1991, rejected this report and banned the chief observer from the country. This followed on from laws brought in under the previous parliament which restricted international funding for Ethiopia-based NGOs working on human rights and democratisation. Such actions damaged the country’s international reputation and reduced democratic space. Opposition activists argue that under the current parliament, and especially in the run up to this year’s election, the EPRDF government headed by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has continued to erode this democratic space.

Opposition parties have heavily criticised the government and the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), which they view as under the influence of the EPRDF. The Semayawi party have stated that half of their four hundred candidates that were submitted to NEBE were not registered and therefore cannot run in May’s election. Although NEBE said that these candidates failed to fulfil necessary requirements for candidature, Yilkal Getnet has argued that his party has still not been provided with a proper explanation. Moreover, Getnet himself has been prevented from running in the election due to inconsistencies over the number of registered candidates for Addis Ababa constituencies (The law permits only 12 candidates per constituency and some had more than this). As a solution NEBE developed a method of allocating candidacies amongst the different parties, which included some candidates being chosen by lottery. Getnet lost the lottery for his constituency.

The other main opposition party – Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) – has also criticised NEBE for its organisation of this year’s election and interference in internal party matters. After a split in the party in late 2014, NEBE decided that it would rule on which faction would represent UDJ in this year’s election. In January 2015, NEBE announced that the rival faction to the only current opposition MP, Girma Seifu, would represent the party in this year’s election. Seifu saw this as a deliberate government policy to weaken the opposition and has stated that neither he nor anyone belonging to his faction will run in May. This assessment is supported by other commentators who view Seifu’s faction as the heir to the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), which won over 100 seats in the 2005 election.

Aside from such interference on the part of NEBE, the election campaign process is already heavily weighted in the EPRDF’s favour. This is indicated by the distribution of a public fund for party election campaigns. Although 10 percent of the fund is split evenly between all the parties taking part, 40 percent is allocated based on how many candidates are standing for each party, 35 percent is based on the amount of seats won by each party at the last election and 15 percent is based on the number of female candidates standing for each party. Thus, larger incumbent parties, like the EPRDF, are favoured by such a system. Moreover, this distribution is also applied to the amount of coverage provided to each party across Ethiopian media.

Outside of Ethiopia, the government have also been criticised by a number of human rights and pro-democracy NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In January 2015 Human Rights Watch released a report entitled ‘Journalism Is Not A Crime’, in which it described Ethiopia’s media as being “decimated” by the EPRDF government. The report noted that in 2014 six independent publications were closed down and 22 journalists, bloggers and publishers were arrested and charged under the auspices of an anti-terrorism proclamation. The group said that conditions such as this have led to “self-censorship”. The response from the EPRDF government, voiced by a special advisor to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, was that “Human Rights Watch has lost their credibility a long time ago” so there is “no point for us to respond to their remarks”. Similarly, in March 2015, CPJ reported that journalists working for the US-based independent Ethiopian Satellite Television station (ESAT) had been under surveillance since February 2014 by an organisation with links to the Ethiopian Government, which may even be the Ethiopian Information Network security Agency.

Reports such as these have further damaged Ethiopia’s international reputation and democratic credentials. In March 2015, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) stated that it had ended support for a public service program due to “particular recent trends on civil and political rights in relation to freedom of expression and electoral competition, and continued concerns about the accountability of the security services”. Thus, the EPRDF’s restriction of political opposition and freedom of the press is not only damaging the country’s reputation but also having a real effect on geo-political relations.

Although this year’s election is new territory for the EPRDF – after the death of the party’s long term leader Meles Zenawi in 2012 – they are expected to win comfortably. The death of such a unifying figure is likely to put strains on the coalition of allied parties that make up the EPRDF but it is highly unlikely that this will have much of an impact on the elections in May. With a large section of an already divided opposition refusing to engage in the electoral process, it appears that the EPRDF have already dealt with any threat posed to their rule before the election takes place. However, as political parties shun the electoral process, protests and public demonstrations may become the more favoured option of political engagement. If opposition parties choose to stage demonstrations to coincide with the election, it is likely that the government will clamp down on these quickly. As was seen in 2005, such conditions can have violent consequences, which will only damage Ethiopia’s international relations further.

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