Can Ethiopia’s Electoral Code Guarantee Fair Elections? – By Peter Heinlein (VOA)

November 2nd, 2009 Print Print Email Email

Ethiopia’s parliament is set to adopt an electoral code agreed on by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party and three of the opposition groups challenging his rule in elections next May. (more…)

Ethiopia’s parliament is set to adopt an electoral code agreed on by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party and three of the opposition groups challenging his rule in elections next May. A coalition of eight other parties boycotted negotiations on the code, saying it fails to address their concerns that the system is rigged in the ruling party’s favor. VOA’s Peter Heinlein in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa examines the possibilities for a democratic opening in a country seen by many as a de facto one-party state.

Prime Minister Meles sat down with three opposition politicians last week to sign what was hailed as a landmark electoral Code of Conduct. Speaking in Amharic through an interpreter, Mr. Meles said the agreement would guarantee a level playing field for all competitors in upcoming parliamentary elections.

“This is a document that puts us on an equal footing and puts obligations on the two of us, which forces us to have an election that satisfies the criteria for democracy,” said Meles. “This is a great achievement.”

The Code of Conduct appears to answer concerns voiced by the opposition and the international community that Prime Minister Meles’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front controls the electoral process.

Sitting next to Mr. Meles at the signing ceremony were three top members of the old Coalition for Unity and Democracy, which mounted a powerful challenge to Mr. Meles party in the 2005 parliamentary vote. That election ended in violence, when CUD demonstrators were gunned down while protesting that the election had been stolen. Many CUD leaders were charged with inciting the violence and imprisoned for life. They were later pardoned.

But eight other opposition parties boycotted the Code of Conduct talks and did not sign it, saying the agreement ignores the main issues. The eight, which have formed a coalition called the Forum for Democratic Dialogue, say fairness is impossible as long as the prime minister appoints the National Electoral Board and the government maintains its tight control over the media.

A former close associate of Prime Minister Meles, Gebru Asrat, is a vice-chairman and spokesman for the Forum. He says two of the three opposition parties that signed the Code of Conduct are moles with suspicious ties to the government.

“The EPRDF has discussed with parties that seem to approve or endorse its lines, not the serious parties that do challenge the EPRDF and do have serious issues about the political space in the country,” said Gebru Asrat. “As far as we are concerned, nothing substantial has been discussed in this negotiation. This is simply a ploy to show the diplomatic community that the EPRDF is compromising with parties. Who are those parties? We know these parties, except the Unity Party.”

The All Ethiopian Unity Party led by Hailu Shewal is the one signatory to the Code of Conduct widely acknowledged as a legitimate independent political force. Engineer Hailu, as he is called, led the CUD to its remarkable showing in the 2005 election, and was among those imprisoned afterward.

In a VOA interview, Hailu admitted that many opposition supporters are suspicious of his seeming closeness and conciliatory attitude toward Prime Minister Meles, whose government convicted him of treason and sentenced him to life in prison three years ago.

“I do not blame the people for being like that,” said Hailu. “It is our history. We came through all these problems. That is why we say ‘our discussions will continue’. Because there are nitty-gritty issues to solve, and the people are concentrating on those nitty gritty issues. They suspect we made a deal, they suspect we are taking advantage of something. Whatever we did, we did it for the people. And it is our job to explain what we did, to explain why we did it.”

Hailu says he plans to make next May’s election about core philosophical issues, such as the government’s control of the country’s land resources.

Individuals have a right to own the country’s land. To release the people’s energy they have to own something. They have to be aiming towards the leaders of their own destiny. But in the case where the government controls all the land, then there is no way that people can become what you call rich, or live a decent life.

Hailu says his Unity Party is the only opposition group with a near-nationwide support base. The Forum’s support is seen as mainly among Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, the Amharas and Oromos, which comprise 70 percent of the population. But the actual strength of the each group remains untested.

The ruling EPRDF, on the other hand, can claim a nationwide party membership of 4.5 million, and a resounding victory in last year’s local council elections. The U.S. State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Ethiopia says of the 3.6-million seats contested, the EPRDF and its allied parties won all but three.

The International Crisis Group recently issued a report concluding that “the contradiction between [the EPRDF's] de-facto one-party state and its promises to deliver multi-party elections … has been a defining trait of politics since [it came to power] in 1991.”

In response, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry called the ICG report ‘malicious propaganda’ that contains extremely serious errors and takes an entirely negative tone toward government policies’.

The Electoral Board has set December 8th as the formal start of the 2010 election campaign. Voting will be May 23.

  1. Getahun
    | #1

    It may not guarantee fair and free election but it is a wonderful political move to create a democratic ground for the next generation . The effort to negotiate all the political parties is one of the best moves ever made by EPRDF .

  2. Ayalew
    | #2

    Getahun, do not cheat us using the Woyane line to extend TPLF rule. Chamiso, Liditu, and now Hailu are rejects just like Woyane. Fair and free election will throw them out of politics thus they choice to play the woyane game to keep them going.

    At the mean time you are pumping propaganda ‘create a democratic ground for the next generation’ to keep TPLF going. If you are Ethiopian you would not stoop to that level. Be mindful that Woyane can not be legitimate the way things are, no one will wait to the next generation as you suggested. Woyane have to give up power peacefully or forcefully in this generation. It would be wise to give up peacefully while it can for the sake of Ethiopia and itself, but again Ethiopia never been the concern of Woyane.

    If you are not a Woyane mold yourself, why do not you tell us how it is a fair and free election going to happen with Woyane goons harassing and terrorizing the population? If you do not know what free and fair election means keep quite and learn. If you are a hired hand you can do a better job than next generation crap

  3. Belachew
    | #3

    ye Getachew Gadissan “zim zim etewan” lerase merichalehu!!!’coz lerasu fame inji le hager ena le hizb yekome eskahun alayehumena.@Getahun

  4. aha!
    | #4

    The Diaspora supporters of UDJP, and/or Medrek are on another round fo attack on the leadership of KAEUP. The first one was during the K-5 honey moon in USA, with the base support of KILL and major media organizations, as being hardliner(gitir), while this other factions, calling themselves moderates/prodemocracy movements, had no role in the peaceful struggle that KAEUP tackled wit TPLF?eprdf vis a vis the 8-point preconditions for fair and free election along with campaing for the passage of HR2003 -S3457 in the Senate. The fact KAEUP signed a code of agreement does not mean KAEUP has abandoned those agenda for the peaceful struggle. For your information, KAEUP as I learned is advancing full steam ahead with the organization of the party and opening offices throughout the country and has in his sleeves of economic and political freedom of the all Ethiopians for private land ownership, an element of private enterprise, along other rights to empower the individual to elect a government with national agenda. Wy those parties of ethnic agenda cry foul in the eleventh hour before the 2010 election, to refuse to seat with Ato Lidetu and Ato Haile Chamiso and to be offended by Eng. Hailu for signing the code of conduct, while the the other strategies are still intact, in a wait and see attitude. A party gains bargaining power and credibility by negotiating with its adversaries.

    While the loyalist opposition parties, were poised to participate in the elcetion 2010, they had strategy to counter TPLF/eprdf during the coe of conduct talks, where they interjected KAEUP’s strategy as a reason to walk out. Nevertheless that does not indicate a boycott the 2010 election. UDJP supporters were recently, debating on the idea of participating or not participating in the 2010 election and the party officials are divided on joining Medrek, and are abosebed in the relase of their leader, which could have been achieved through the 8-point strategy and HR2003-S3457.

  5. aha!
    | #5

    Correction: Second line las paragraph should read, they had no strategy”….

  6. ኑና
    | #6

    Aha,
    You will say any thing to support Hailu Shawel no matter how disappointing and childish he has been acting for the last two years. If negotiation with EPRDF is a good thing then why were you all fussing against other members of the opposition? wa it because the direct negotiator was not the great Hailu Shawel?. Any ways The guy negotiated with the fascist Derg to make a living, so we should not be that surprised if he negotiates with any dictator for his belly.He did not even have the guts to talk about the need to release jailed opposition leaders and members while sitting next to the jailer,and of course the hall was full of International observers, and he missed a golden opportunity of free media!!! he was n’t thinking about any one but himself.

  7. Tesfaye
    | #7

    For Nuna,
    Because Hailu Shawel has a strong support in Ethiopia.
    The others has only office.
    That is why EPRDF try to hold mainly Hailu.
    Don forget people is the power all the time.
    I thing in doing so EPRDF will continue in his smart way.
    Because politics is changing.

  8. Teyaki
    | #8

    Dear Aha

    Which group is KAEUP? Is that the same group led by Eng Hailu? Can you also remind us the core points contained in HR2003-S3457 in the light of the current discussion? What is the relevance of KAEUP’s championing of ‘peaceful struggle vis-a-vis securing victory in the upcoming election or the issue of wresting power from the clutch of the regime? What exactly do you mean when you say ‘…The fact KAEUP signed a code of agreement does not mean KAEUP has abandoned those agenda for the peaceful struggle…’Who said it has? Isn’t that what Meles already set as precondition to sign the code and the groups who have signed it are those who subscribe to a ‘legal and non-violent strategy? But again what is the bearing of that upon winning the election?

    In addition,you tell us that’…KAEUP as I learned is advancing full steam ahead with the organization of the party and opening offices throughout the country and has in his sleeves of economic and political freedom of the all Ethiopians for private land ownership, an element of private enterprise, along other rights to empower the individual to elect a government with national agenda…’.Do you sincerely believe that would alter the outcome of the forthcoming election? What does this do apart from legitimizing the regime where it would still claim to win the election with a more deceptive figure of 70-80% after craftily allowing the likes of KAEUP to score 20-30% ‘victory?

    Finally,what difference does it make whether you style yourself multi-ethnic or you are an ethnic group as long as you allow yourself to be co-opted by the regime and you become instrumental for the perpetuation of the TPLF’s rule?

  9. russ
    | #9

    we ethiopian will get all weyane tplf & banda
    http://www.ethiopianreview.com/content/11132

  10. JIGSA
    | #10

    AS LONG AS WOYANE TPLF AGREE TO PARTICIPATE IN A FARE AND FREE ELECTION IT MAIGHT BE POSSIBLE.FIRST THE WOYANE TPLF 2005 ELECTION BOARD MUST BE ABOLISHED AND REPLACED BY A NEW ONE WHICH I THINK THEY AGREE ON THIS ONE.SECOUND THERE MUST BE A FREE PRESS THEY AGREE ON THIS ONE TOO.THIRD EQUAL MEDIA TIME FOR ALL PARTIES THEY AGREE ON THIS TOO I THINK AND SO ON…. WHAT I DIDNT SEE WAS THE CASE OF 2005 POLITICAL PRISONESRS ABOUT 40,000 PEOPLE WERE ROUNDED UP AND PUT IN PRISION THEY MUST BE FREE THE OPPOSITION MUST ASK FOR THEIR RELEASE AS THE ETHIOPIAN PEOPLE ARE ASKING ALL THIS TIME.THE TPLF MUST FREE THOSE PEOPLE NOW!!!!!!!!!!!I SUGGEST TO ALL TO READ THE DOCUMENT AND GIVE THEIR JUDGEMENT.THE ETHIOPIAN PEOLE STRUGGLE FOR DEMOCRACY WILL PREVAIL!!!

  11. Anonymous
    | #11

    I have been disappointed by the kinds of views expressed at #4 and #5 by the otherwise perspicacious Aha! who has regrettably got it wrong due to his curious and uncritical support for Eng Hailu’s group.

    Let us face it. It does not matter whether Eng Hailu’s claimed political platform is multi-ethnic or not as long as he has capitulated to the TPLF.
    I am sad to note that he is now part of or an additional fixture of that system.
    To declare that you have, as Lidetu claimed earlier, got now a new revelation where you are able to change the system from within, to expand the political space as such and thus ultimately challenge TPLF’s power is, I am afraid, an utter self-deception. Although I do not want to doubt the smartness of the authors of such tactical move, I don’t want to be unrealistic enough either in thinking that the regime lacks the wit and wherewithal to successfully meet such challenge to its power.

    In any event, what has the multi-ethnic Lidetu to show so far for such a ‘smart’ tactical manoeuvre?
    I suppose as we might have already seen in Lidetu’s case and as we may probably see it again in Eng Hailu’s case, you can only legitimise the system and the system will demand more of the same while giving you nothing. Remember that you are dealing with a dictatorship. This means that your game a zero-sum game. You should not believe Meles when he tells you that this is a give and take transaction or a win-win situation. There is no compelling reason him to play a fair game. What for? He is only interested in continuing the status quo.Doesn’t Eng Hailu know this? How does Eng Hailu prove that Meles is born again, as it were, if he says he is?

    To be frank, I don’t think the complex man’s i.e.Eng Hailu’s change of heart should be sought here. I suspect his wounded ego in the conflict within the now defunct Kinjit and his subsequent animus towards his earlier ‘rivals’ Dr.Berhanu and Wt Birtukan (some allege his overweening ambition and the security of his private business are the probable reasons) could perhaps be his main driving motive and yet I fail to see why he should decided to go that far. I want to believe rather that he could have still joined and played a pivotal role to mould and strengthen Medrek while being able to emerge a leader of a formidable coalition challenging the regime.

    At any rate, a political culture where personalities loom larger than the organizations they lead seems to be at the heart of our problem. Surely there must be a way to curb a leader’s authoritarian proclivities through an active and optimal democratic participation of the members in ways that ensure that correct decisions are taken in matters big or small.

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