Elections 2021 In-depth

EIEP: One vote forwards, two steps back for Ethiopian democracy

This year’s partial election saw some procedural improvements amid overall political deterioration.

This article is part of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP) series.

“Ethiopia has won yesterday. It will keep on winning,” posted Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister and leader of the incumbent Prosperity Party (PP), a day after the country’s general election on 21 June, a date that he heralded as “historic”.

It was Ethiopia’s sixth general election since the inauguration of the constitution that framed the federation as we know it. But this one, claimed Abiy, was “our country’s first free and fair election.”

The pronouncement was made early, evidently, as 19 constituencies, including those in the youngest regional state, Sidama, had not yet voted due to logistical issues (some of these constituencies voted the day after, 22 June)—not to mention the more than 100 hundred constituencies left out of the 21 June vote because of insecurity and other irregularities.

Nevertheless, tens of millions of Ethiopians went to 40,365 stations in 425 out of 547 constituencies across eight regional states and two city administrations.

In the weeks that followed, “Ethiopia won” caught on as the catchphrase for ruling politicians, in state-sponsored media, and among tweeting members of the public.

The phrase has been used to praise the peaceful nature of the electoral process. It can also be viewed as a way of celebrating the apparent enthusiasm at the polls, as demonstrated by official high turnout numbers.

Over 38.2 million people registered to vote, a number exceeding any of the previous five elections, which is perhaps not a surprise given the growing population. In the nation’s capital, Addis Abeba, 99 percent of the more than 1.8 million registered voters reportedly showed up, queuing in lines until midnight, as voting needed to be extended to accommodate them.

An average of 94.5 percent of the nearly 32 million registered voters in Afar, Amhara, Gambella, Oromia, Sidama, SNNP regional states, and Dire Dawa City Administration voted in the June polls, according to election board figures.

However, of those regions with registered voters, residents of Somali and Harari did not end up voting on the election day due largely to opposition complaints, while only 55 percent of the registered 162,609 voters in Benishangul-Gumuz went to the polls as elections were cancelled in much of the region.

Leading up to polling day, plenty of Ethiopians were not at ease. I heard refrains like “Let this election pass peacefully,” and comparable phrases pass through the mouths of many in the months, weeks, and days before the event.

Indeed, Ethiopia has been in a state of turmoil, defined by ethnic fragmentation, armed insurgencies, interstate disputes, and a bloody war in and around Tigray region following a disastrous breakdown in relations between the federal and Tigray governments.

Darkening the voting day itself were a series of security concerns and fears over safety at polling stations around the country. Arguably, those threads of skepticism were all credible. Nevertheless, 21 June passed relatively peacefully, offering a hopeful silver lining to some citizens.

“The voting has proven wrong the negative narratives of election day and post-result violence that surfaced in the lead-up. Of all actors, the voting public pulled it off, demonstrating peace was its foremost priority,” Debebe Hailegebriel, a seasoned legal expert and civil society activist, told Ethiopia Insight in July. In spite of “clear challenges in the election’s organizations,” he said, “it will still be a promising experience to the process that we want to see start.”

Unfortunately, though, some of the prophecies about this election have turned out true. The democratic principles of free and fair competition were tested by the country’s political divides, and the official results of the election speak volumes about the process.

On 10 July, 18 days after the vote, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced the results.

The Prosperity Party (PP) won all but 26 out of the 436 contested federal seats. It also bagged the vast majority of the contested regional council seats, as well as Addis Abeba and Dire Dawa, the two autonomous city administrations.

Befeqadu Hailu, director at the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD), questions the “Ethiopia won” narrative.

He explains that “the hope was to see a deviation from the past about the process.” However, he says, political competition was unequal and “there was no presumption that political parties from the opposition bloc would win a legislative majority to form a government or dominate regional councils.” Therefore, “It is hard to say “Ethiopia won, “ Befeqadu told Ethiopia Insight.

While the state media are busily amplifying the message and blaming “internal forces,” mainly TPLF and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)/ Shene, trying to disrupt the election process, the June elections highlighted that a relatively peaceful vote does not equate to peaceful politics.

For this reason, the attempt to reframe Prosperity’s win as Ethiopia’s win is, according to Befeqadu, “seriously dangerous.”

Procedural aspects

“That the NEBE was able to conduct an election in this country is a victory by itself,” declared President Sahle-work Zewde in a speech at the official result announcing program.

It was a speech cognizant of the heavy task undertaken by NEBE, the lead actor in the country’s marathon election process. But it also alludes to the situation in the country.

The NEBE has conducted the election while going through institutional and legal changes. It had to manage the process amid an agitating playing field, with pressure and criticisms leveled against it from opposing political elites, including those in the ruling party.

It was a difficult journey for the board members and their leader Birtukan Midekssa, former judge and opposition figure, who accepted the tough role as chairperson in November 2018.

Birtukan’s appointment by the PM had been a surprise in itself. As a prominent member of the opposition bloc against Abiy’s former party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), her selection was viewed as part of the Prime Minister’s reforms.

It had been an odd path for Birtukan, who joined at the time an advisory council for legal and justice affairs was working on the amendment of the law to reorganize the board. It was a significant step up for her to chair the board, where she was tasked with staffing the organization and being part of revising all election related laws and rules.

As much as it was a painstaking and violent process, the Sidama referendum the NEBE managed to conduct arguably helped as a prototype in its preparation for the general election. Yet the latter, thrice postponed, has posed unprecedented challenges for NEBE.

The COVID-19 pandemic in Ethiopia was not only inopportune, but also became a reason for the initially undetermined election delay and extension of all governments’ terms. This, in turn, exacerbated intergovernmental tensions, most seriously between Tigray and its federal partner.

Additionally, NEBE was challenged by various political groups, including the incumbent. Taken together, it is no wonder that there was discord within the board, especially after a member’s decision to leave last year. But Birtukan pushed on.

“To be independent means to put oneself in a very cold place. To be independent and maintain one’s work integrity means to pass through a huge friction and conflict. I, my colleagues here and others, have passed through a lot in this process; we have learned many lessons and faced many problems,” Birtukan said in a speech during the result announcement program.

As transparent as she said her board has become, Birtukan admitted that the elections were “far from being fair”. She criticized, among others, the state media’s unfair distribution of free air time for campaigns and party program promotions, implying their unabashed fidelity to the ruling party.

Ironically, international media and local private press were not allowed to attend the 10 July announcement ceremony, leading some journalists to speak out against NEBE for obstructing access. The state media, meanwhile, was granted exclusive access to attend and transmit the event live.

Still, since early in the run-up, the board has respected the media’s freedom to cover the polls, in spite of some public relations challenges and media criticism of the organization.

Befeqadu, a former political prisoner under the EPRDF who wants to see the constitution birthed by that coalition changed, contends that the election “was not one to be seen as free, fair, and democratic. However, its process, the commendable efforts from the electoral board, the public’s will to peace, and the voter turnout rate are the indicators of it to have passed as a good lesson for future democratic undertakings.”

Some of this was observable in the capital.

When Ethiopia Insight visited polls in different constituencies across Addis, it saw young people as heads of polling stations in bigger constituencies, some of them arguing with ruling party cadres at lower structures and asking them to leave the station.

There were also the civil society organizations, which had been around since the 2005 general election. After years of demoralization and inactivity since the 2009 passing of the repressive Charities and Societies Law, this election represented a revival for many of the longstanding organizations, as well as a first chapter for some new ones.

In March 2019, a new Civil Society Organizations law was legislated as part of a reform process to strengthen democratic institutions and support the crucial work of rights watchdogs.

This marked a radical shift from the 11-year-old legal regime, which had directives targeted to curtail the activities of rights-focused CSOs, requiring that they raise at least 90 percent of their funding domestically, or stay away from most rights advocacy.

After the election, NEBE’s final report stated that 46 local CSOs deployed a total of 44,560 observers on the polling day. The CSOs created a coalition that was actively involved throughout the process.

Of course, their work was not without challenges.

“The CSOs have had an encouraging involvement in the election, fairly in terms of numbers and their interests. They could have been even stronger in their roles of civic and voter education, but the funding issue was not too easily reeled in,” said Debebe, who was the chair of a working group drafting the new CSO law within an advisory council on legal reforms. “The international donors’ interest to support the CSOs as much as they supported NEBE was not satisfactory,” he told Ethiopia Insight.

The US-based International Republican Institute was one funding source for CSOs. Still, Debebe says, it would have helped if large funds given to the center were fairly distributed to actors on the ground. These were arrangements discussed and unfulfilled in the 2005 election, which could have been realized more fully in this one.

Election observers have noted that gender-based harassment at the polls was one serious issue in the process, but many have not underscored that women’s participation was also unsatisfactory.

Playing the field

Lost in the accolades about peaceful voting, other observers have cautioned that the election did little to tackle the country’s daunting security challenges, and, in fact, marked a backtracking from the democratic path promised three years ago.

Conducted without any meaningful dialogue to try to solve fundamental, chronic, and serious divisions, the election gives a mandate to a new government, which will see its days in a state rife with challenges. Voting alone cannot solve that.

“This election will not solve the country’s structural problems,” says Befeqadu.

The political playing field, which also repeatedly raised concerns from NEBE, has not deviated much from the past. Incumbent harassment of opposition political parties, closure of offices, and manipulating institutions have remained a constant in Ethiopian politics.

The concerns in the run-up to the elections were related to security challenges with the board complaining it had not been getting “the proper information [it] required from federal entities, especially concerning security issues.”

Oromia, the most populous region, had particularly acute challenges related to security and suppression of competition.

Under Abiy, opposition groups and organizations previously labeled as “terrorists” under the EPRDF were welcomed back. Very shortly, they began testing the waters to see what kind of a political base they could build.

The participation of prominent activists like Jawar Mohammed were signs that healthy competition might open up the democratic process. Jawar joined the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the party led by veteran academic Merera Gudina.

The OFC then formed a coalition with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the oldest Oromo nationalist party, which enjoyed wide support across Oromia.

While opposition leaders raised many complaints about the registration process, and about their ability to compete fairly, there was nevertheless a sense from many that Ethiopia was leading up to an election unlike any other, where people would truly have options and a say in the outcome.

Then, on 29 June 2020, everything changed.

Hachalu Hundessa, a beloved Oromo musician and celebrated rights advocate was murdered, in what many believe was a plot. Opposition leaders including Jawar and Bekele Gerba were put behind bars, where they have remained ever since.

The OFC later effectively boycotted the election, as did the OLF, as their members across Oromia lost hope in the possibility of a peaceful process.

Division among leaders of the OLF, which was always an issue and had led to fracturing and formation of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), grew wider as the space for political participation tightened.

In many ways, NEBE was forced to act as a judge determining the legitimacy of conflicting camps and trying to decide who was acting illegally.

Eventually, competing claims and conflict with NEBE and the ruling party led the OLF to also withdraw from the election. In the end, there was no real challenger to the ruling party in Oromia.

Still, many voters and political leaders in other regions held out hope that there would be a chance for the opposition to take a few more seats in the parliament than they ended up doing. Yet the election and its process have somehow yielded a result of despair even for those political parties with a will to compete.

Parties like Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema) were fairly popular among middle class and urban dwelling elites, and the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) shared broad popularity among ethnic Amharas in Amhara regional state. They therefore seemed to be in quite strong positions to win votes and earn seats. In Addis, the Freedom and Equality Party as well as Balderas for True Democracy Party enjoyed popularity.

In the case of NaMA, a party that motivated the rise of a new generation advocating for  “Amhara nationalism” to counter what it believes are growing threats to Amhara people and territory, its popularity in the region had been palpable since 2018.

In the months leading up to the election, protests across Amhara were sparked by targeted attacks and insecurity in the region. In demonstrations, blame was laid squarely upon the Amhara Prosperity Party (A-PP), and rallying cries against the government seemed to indicate strong opposition to the incumbent.

Even in Addis Abeba, NaMA had high hopes of influencing the results. These hopes were bolstered by its collaboration with Eskinder Nega’s Balderas in the capital.

In spite of seeming competitive, NaMA only won 13 regional council seats. The ruling A-PP took 128 seats of the 294 seats. The remaining regional council seats are to be contested in the 6 September round of votes, alongside a re-run in five constituencies.

NaMA has also sent just five of its candidates to the federal parliament of 138 seats slated to the region in the House of Peoples’ Representative (HoPR). Candidates from the A-PP have won 114, so far.

While acknowledging the efforts by NEBE officials, NaMA argued the election had notable irregularities.

PP retained power in the capital, with a landslide win both in the city council, with 138 seats, and in the parliament, with 22 seats.

Addis Abeba has 23 seats in the HoPR and one was won by an “independent” candidate Daniel Kibret, an Orthodox deacon known for his pan-Ethiopian oratory and watertight ties with the PM.

On 30 July, Balderas rejected the result in Addis and has taken its case to court. The party said that it has conducted “scientific research” on the process, and argued that the vote had been “hijacked” by PP. The party accused PP officials of campaigning in polling stations and alleged vote rigging. It said citizen observers chosen from the public were absent in polling stations.

“The outcome of the elections showed that the cadres of the incumbent deliberately worked to disrupt the process,” said Balderas, whose leader Eskinder ran as a candidate from prison in June’s election after a successful legal challenge to a NEBE decision barring him and other party members on trial.

Led by Berhanu Nega, a former economics professor, rebel, and prominent figure in the contested 2005 elections, Ezema is generally considered to have substantive policies on urban development, the economy, and social issues. Yet it only won four seats in the federal legislature and Berhanu himself lost out. It also won 10 seats in SNNP regional council.

Ezema filed complaints to NEBE shortly after the election about alleged irregularities in 68 constituencies, including forged ballot papers, missing voter registration documents, and voting and tabulation errors. It called for re-runs in 28 constituencies, all in SNNP, to the Federal Supreme Court.

So far, NEBE has announced re-runs in, overall, nine constituencies after complaints relating to 201 constituencies.

Some of these opposition concerns were also identified in the preliminary report of the Coalition of Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations for Election (CECOE), which had 3,000 monitors on election day.

Ezema, NAMA, and others said their members were being detained and physically abused by the government in the lead up to polling.

In Afar, five opposition parties disowned a statement by a regional council of political parties that claimed they had called the election “fair, democratic, peaceful, and credible.” They said Afar-PP has “tried to bury truth, justice, and democracy” as they called for the unfair vote to be repeated.

In mid-August, the Reporter Amharic newspaper said the Federal Supreme Court has disclosed that 74 challenges regarding the election had been made.

These include 57 cases on the pre-election period, four on the election day, and 13 other cases on post-election issues. Of these, 22 activities, like tearing down opposition posters, campaigning inside polling stations, and holding armaments were filed under criminal charges.

Election observers also raised flags that few polling stations posted results as they were supposed to.  Another concern was errors on the ballot papers, likely to change results.

“There are some really questionable rates of invalid ballots in a few constituencies—over 20 percent for HoPR constituencies—and some larger than the margin of victory for the winning candidate,” one international observer said in a discussion with Ethiopia Insight.

In a joint 36-page report published this month, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI)—the two US NGOs that conducted remote election observation—commended institutional improvements from past elections while observing it as one that “fell short of key standards” on measures including campaign and political party conditions, security, constituency delimitation, and voter registration.

Faltering steps

It is for these reasons, in addition to the existing violent polarization, that some experts see the election as a bad sign for democracy in Ethiopia.

Mebratu Kelecha, a political analyst and contributor to Ethiopia Insight, argued last month that the election was held on an uneven playing field amid fear and misinformation.

He cites the process of pushing out opposition parties in Oromia and going to war with Tigray to remove the TPLF from power as a way of rooting out competition, and refusing to engage in compromise and dialogue.

“The trajectory of the current transition and of these elections confirm a rugged political path that laid the groundwork for the resurgence of autocratic rule,” Mebratu wrote. “The election not only went badly, but also cast a shadow over the possibility of creating a common future for the country.”

Mebratu thinks the election might undermine or overturn Ethiopia’s current federal structure. There are certainly people in the country, including Amhara nationalists and ethnically mixed urban elites, who might be happy to see ethnofederalism abolished or radically diluted, he said.

He seems to have a point. This, after all, is a diverse country, not only in language, culture, and tradition, but also in politics and perspectives about the structure of the state. Silencing differences for the sake of pushing forward a uniform idea of what Ethiopia means not only goes against the principles of democracy, but also goes against the will expressed by so many Ethiopians.

The vote was squarely, although not entirely fairly, won by the Prosperity Party. There were many reasons why Ethiopians came out en masse to vote, where they could—not the least of them being the will to achieve peace and stability for the country.

However, voting for PP should not be taken as a sign of consensus or of unconditional acceptance for the party’s politics. Nor should it be taken as a definitive “win” for democracy in Ethiopia, given that PP’s main ethnonational opponents did not take part and because of the uneven ground this election was contested on.

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This article was corrected on 30 August as Birtukan was not a member of the advisory council for legal and justice affairs.

This article is part of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP), a series of in-depth reported pieces from across Ethiopia in our ‘Elections 2021’ section that analyzes issues related to this year’s polls.

Main photo: Birtukan Mideksa, chairwoman of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), at the election result announcement ceremony; 10 July 2021; NEBE.

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Mistir Sew

This is a generic byline for all anonymous authors. The anonymity could be because they fear repercussions, as they are not authorized by their employers to express their views publicly, or for other reasons.

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