Letter from Ethiopia: Election 2010 Overview Part III – Eskinder Nega, Addis Ababa.

March 5th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

The Voter and “the Birtukan factor” (more…)

The Voter and “the Birtukan factor”

Here is the election form hell for the modern western pundit, journalist, commentator, politician and voter: an election without pre-election polling. Almost always halfheartedly dismissed by politicians, religiously studied by pundits and cited much too often by journalists, pre election polls gauge how voters are reacting to political parties and candidates in campaigns and what issues are important to them. Ever since the 1945 British elections, when the newly established subsidiary of Gallup accurately predicted a surprise Labor win over war-hero Winston Churchill, they have been generally accurate and indispensable .In short, no modern election should be without them. They are a legitimate and important source of information to voters, politicians, pundits and journalists alike.

But unlike the exhilarating 2005 elections, when the free press experimented with ingenuous polling, this year’s election, in perfect sync with its impassive tone (thanks to the election code of conduct, state media tells us) has yet to see its first poll. One reason is of course the absence of firms that are capable of neutral scientific polls, but a second, much more important– and menacing– threat has more to do with its total absence: the recognition by the EPRDF that polls conducted as an election proceeds work in favor of the party in lead, generating momentum and jolting the vote of its supporters to a new level of consequence. This is no mere paranoia. Polls had boosted the moral of the opposition in 2005; and in a first for the EPRDF (the TPLF in particular) ,had badly demoralized its supporters.

Though we do not have polls to show us the preferences, leanings, differences and concerns of the Ethiopian voter, that does not necessarily preclude the mapping of voting patterns based on precedent, gender, ethnicity, income, etc; which are more often than not accurate.

The average Ethiopian voter is young; around 50 % of the electorate is under 30. The 18 to 24 age group by itself is more than 10 % of the voting public; but this is hardly surprising for a country whose median age is 17 barely years. It is the under 30 age group, conspicuously those between 15 and 25, that protested the election results in the streets in late 2005; and if there are to be street protests again this year, which is unlikely but not impossible, it will be this group again that will battle against the security forces. It is also the group that the EPRDF has invested most heavily on for the past four years; by and large through training schemes and public works programs. In addition to a newly constituted youth wing of the EPRDF, a youth organization funded Ethio- Saudi billionaire Al-Amoudin had been created to stir this group away from the opposition after the post-election riots; though its efforts have been hopelessly compromised by a series of debilitating scandals. Fortunately for the EPRDF , however, unlike 2005, when the urban youth openly identified with the CUD, that enthusiasm for party affiliation is visibly absent this year; the lack of patience for deciphering the complexities that led to the fallout between CUD leaders even more pronounced. But this is a volatile group, there is no certainty with it, and EPRDF has organized an elite strike force tasked to make sure, in the event of protests, that its control of the streets will be shorter than it was in 2005.

The great hyped hope of the EPRDF in Addis Ababa, which will inevitably be closely monitored by international observers, is the women vote this year. Kebele cadres have been instructed to do everything to sway them, and many of them are opting for a career boost by delivering them.. Women are supposedly not paying much attention to the campaign, are less disenchanted than men, and are most likely undecided about whom to vote for. They are in effect the swing vote. It is also counting on between a fourth and a third of the city’s vote (calculating on the basis of the 2000 and 2005 election results), who will predictably come out in full force to vote come election day. This is the only section of the voting public that is thrilled about the election (EPRDF’s win is after all assured at the national level), is confident of its choice and is decidedly motivated by the opposition’s disarray.

EPRDF’s calculation is that with a split opposition, some of the women vote that went to the opposition in 2005, and a third of the vote that could be counted on, it will be viable in Addis.

But in all likelihood, the EPRDF is posed to lose the women vote in Addis because of what could be called “the Birtukan factor”. Many women speak sympathetically about the plight of Bitukan Medeksa, the imprisoned leader of UDJ, and most pundits are convinced that many more (men as well women) will vote for her party as a gesture of empathy and solidarity. Neither have empirical researches shown that women voters are any more politically ignorant than their male counterparts. Ignorance of detailed political issues is a feature of the electorate in general, with no great gender bias. The bulk of the Ethiopian public usually benignly abstains from closely tracking political issues, and is content to respond to cues issued by political activists. (And I fear that this true of the Diaspora, too)

The fancy strategies of the EPRDF notwithstanding, Addis Ababa will not vote for the EPRDF; however uninspired voters may end up being by the opposition. (The opposition may yet inspire, by the way. Two and half months are a long, long time in politics.)Merkato, the city’s business hub, in particular, is more, not less, anti-EPRDF, than it was in 2005.This is the section of the city that was brutally suppressed during the street protests in 2005, and the pain and bitterness still lingers.

EPRDF remains unpopular in the other major urban areas, too;the sympathy for Birtukan no less. But the EPRDF is not expected to concede all of them to the opposition as it did in 2005.Expect them to be the epicenters of controversy in the post-election period.

An astounding 85 % of the Ethiopian voter is rural based. This means roughly 25 million people this year, spread out over 1, 000, 000 sq. km; where every 50 households are now being monitored by new sub-level party and government structures set up after the 2005 election. (In an American or European context, this is equivalent to installing security cameras at every corner in the neighborhood for political surveillance.) Opposition presence had always been weak in the countryside, but their almost total absence so far, less than 90 days before election day, is truly disquieting.

Given the choice, rural voters will overwhelmingly turn against the EPRDF; who, from the perspective of the average farmer, has accomplished what everyone thought impossible: to be more intrusive in a farmer’s life than even the Derg.

Who then, entangled in such a life, would not crave his freedom

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