Next year’s national elections will be the first since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018. Abiy’s reforms are hopeful steps forward for Ethiopia. Despite this initial burst, however, there are reasons for grave doubt about the prospects for a free and fair election in 2020.
Most significantly, Ethiopia has not had a truly competitive election since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power. 2005 came close but was spoiled by the violent aftermath, as key parts of the opposition rejected the result and the government cracked down and closed up. Although I believe Prime Minister Abiy is sincere in his desire to transform Ethiopia, he is contending with a deeply entrenched one-party system, of which he is both a product and a potential beneficiary.
The ruling party has held regular elections over the past 28 years, but those exercises have never been fully free or fair. Through well-documented and carefully calibrated mechanisms of manipulation and repression, the EPRDF controlled all but one of 547 parliamentary seats in the 2010 election and went one better in 2015. Prime Minister Abiy has repeatedly promised to ensure fair and credible elections in 2020. Sadly, however, that is a promise that he probably cannot keep.
Controlled by ruling party cadres
As an example of how deeply entrenched EPRDF control of the country’s politics is, I will share my personal experience of running as an opposition candidate for parliament in the May 2010 parliamentary elections. I represented the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC, now known as the Oromo Federalist Congress – OFC) which was a member of a larger coalition called Medrek. I ran in a constituency in Oromia region called Negelle, which is made up of four woredas (districts) containing 105 voting stations. At national level, 32 million voters registered for the 2010 elections out of approximately 37 million eligible citizens.
The largest stumbling block for opposition candidates was the electoral structure itself. Despite the fact that the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) was established in 1993 as an independent and autonomous organ responsible for administering all elections and referenda in the country, in practice, the board and its lower-level positions at the woreda and kebele (sub-districts of woredas) levels, as well as at polling stations, were all controlled by ruling party cadres. This conflict of interest should be immediately apparent; the deck was stacked from the beginning.
The first instance of election fraud I noticed took place during voter registration. The election officials at polling stations would not register opposition supporters, particularly students and other young people. Most eligible young voters were prohibited from registering and acquiring their voting cards under the assumption that they would not vote for the ruling party. Students filed complaints, but in vain. Moreover, the registration was carried out in just six weeks, which is a very short period.
Also, the ruling party systematically interfered with opposition campaign activities. My attempts to organize campaign events were repeatedly blocked. Electoral law specified that a candidate must submit a written notice of planned events to local authorities. That gave these officials, all ruling party members, the power to invoke various pretexts to make opposition campaigning practically impossible. They had no statutory authority to stop me from campaigning. All I was supposed to do was give them written notice and conduct my campaign within the bounds of the law. But the notice I was required to give in fact telegraphed to the ruling party my every move, and sometimes resulted in things like an order forbidding the use of a loudspeaker or megaphone.
I was unable to campaign that day
At other times, the militia would chase people away from campaign posters I had just put up. On two different days in March 2010, I was blocked from campaigning in the towns of Haraqallo and Jidola. The ruling party mayors of both towns said campaigning was not allowed on market days. The law does not prevent campaigning at all on market days, just in the actual marketplace, which I understood. I had no intention of campaigning in the marketplace itself.
The administration in Jidola warned me not to use a megaphone or any kind of loudspeaker. I knew that if I did, security forces could stop me. So I quietly informed people in public areas that I would be speaking under a nearby tree. Some interested people followed me. However, the kebele officials sent armed militia and dispersed the gathering. Needless to say, I was unable to campaign that day.
Likewise, I was prohibited from campaigning in four additional towns for similarly dubious reasons. Local officials claimed I needed to show them a campaign permit from the woreda administration or other governing body, all of which are controlled by the ruling party. I pointed out that the law says anybody who has a candidate ID from the election board, which I had, can legally campaign without additional documentation.
On another day, I was confronted by local militia while traveling to a campaign event. My supporters were already gathered and awaiting my arrival. As I approached on my motorbike, the militia threatened to shoot me if I did not stop. Since my activities were perfectly legal I did not stop. They then followed through on their threat, firing two shots in my direction and endangering my life.
Opposition candidates in Ethiopia have been routinely subjected to arbitrary arrest, search and seizure, and other forms of harassment. I was no exception, nor were other people who campaigned for me. In May 2010, police searched my father’s home where I shared a room with my brother. Although the search warrant had my father’s name and not mine or my brother’s, they searched our room anyway. They arrested my brother and one other boy, holding them for three days.
The arrest was orchestrated by federal intelligence operatives using the regional police but without authorization from the regional government. The pretext for the search was that they had received information that my brother and I were connected to the Oromo Liberation Front, a guerrilla group. They claimed to be searching for weapons, but all they found was my campaign documents and the OPC party ID cards.
A week later, two other candidates and I stayed in a hotel in a town called Adola Woyu while campaigning. Police showed up and assaulted one of the hotel security guards. During the incident, we heard a person, a police officer, we assumed, screaming, “Do you know who these people are?! Why did you rent a room to them?!” The chief district officials showed up with several police, threatened us, and confiscated our ID cards. Although he gave me back mine, he arrested the other two candidates who were running for the Oromia regional parliament. He released them after three hours of detention, but did not give them back their ID cards. Then he denied having taken them in the first place. After the incident, I was informed that they came to assault me but did not succeed because other individuals were with me in the room. This, I understood, was an intimidation tactic. Through their actions, the officials let us know they could arrest us any time they wanted, in violation of existing laws, without facing any consequences.
Another tactic ruling party officials routinely used was attempting to bribe opposition candidates into dropping their bids for office. They would sometimes offer money, land, or some other kind of power in exchange for quitting their campaigns. This practice continues even though it is prohibited under election law and other statutes. I was offered 100,000 Ethiopian Birr (roughly $7,000 in 2010 dollars) or higher office in the government to drop out. I declined.
Perhaps the most predictable obstacle to a fair vote was harassment and intimidation at the polling stations. My party’s election observers were often assaulted by police and militia on the day of the vote and prohibited from witnessing the voting process. Some of them were detained. For example, I assigned one of my colleagues to a polling station in Liben Woreda and he was arrested as soon as he arrived. He was detained for 18 hours, by which time the vote was over. Needless to say, he was unable to observe any of the voting.
The right to vote is guaranteed under Article 38 of the Ethiopian constitution. In many polling stations, however, opposition supporters were prevented from voting. Our attempts to register complaints were ignored by election officials —again, all of them members of the ruling party. In fact, some officials coerced and intimidated citizens to vote for the ruling party. Some officials sat in the ballot rooms and took ballots from voters and marked them themselves. In some other stations, there was a window on the other side of the supposedly secret voting booth, through which ruling party officials could observe and intimidate voters. These practices were widespread and common; they were not anomalies.
In this regard, my experience—and that of my fellow opposition candidates—contradicted the European Union observer mission’s preliminary statement, which read “Election Day unfolded in a peaceful manner, with a high voter turnout. Overall, the secrecy of the vote was respected despite isolated irregularities and an inconsistent application of procedures. Party agents and domestic observers were present in the majority of observed polling stations.”
The observer mission deployed 170 observers and visited only 815 polling stations in different regions of Ethiopia out of the 43,500 polling stations to observe voting and counting. This tiny sample is both unrepresentative of the whole country and insignificant. My own constituency alone, which is one of 547, has 105 polling stations. The EU’s head of mission conceded that the playing field for the 2010 elections was “not sufficiently balanced, leaning in favor of the ruling party in many areas.” The following are points raised in the EU mission’s report:
- Narrowing of the political space within the country
- Electoral process fell short of international commitments
- Lack of transparency of the process
- The separation between the ruling party and the public administration was often blurred at the local level
- The mission witnessed instances where state resources were openly used for ruling party campaign activities
In a nutshell, the final report of the EU Election Observation Mission underscored violations of freedom of expression, assembly and movement of opposition party members; misemployment of state resources by the ruling party; and an absence of independent media coverage. The then Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, described the report as “useless trash” and the head of the mission was denied access to Ethiopia to present the final report.
If all the above was not sufficient to ensure an EPRDF victory, the counting process was corrupted by ruling party functionaries. Here is how it was done: voting stations opened to the public at 6am. Election law says observers should be in place at the stations at 5am so they could check to make sure the ballot box was empty before voting started. Most of our observers were prohibited from checking the ballot box. Observers are also supposed to count the total number of ballots at the station before the doors open for voters. We were told that ballot boxes were already half-full of pre-marked ballots the night before the vote. Our observers also witnessed that the total number of ballots leaving the polling stations at the end of the day was far more than the total number of ballots there at the beginning. In other words, the sum of the ballots cast was greater than the number of registered voters and exceeded the total number of ballots given to the station by the election office.
For example: in a voting station with 1,000 voters, the total number of ballots provided to the station would be 1,200. The extra 200 are for use in case some ballots might be damaged or misused. After the vote tally, however, the total number of ballots might come in between 1,500 and 2,000. So, on counting the ballots, you would find something like this:
- EPRDF = 1,000 votes
- OPC (my party at the time)/MEDREK (an allied coalition) = 500 votes
- Another party = 60
- Discarded ballots = 100
The total is 1,660. Where did the additional 460 cards come from? Only 1,200 were sent from the election office. We concluded that the ruling party must have printed forged ballots.
Our observers watched as polling station officials forced voters to mark on the bee, the election logo of EPRDF, and also accompanied some voters into what were supposed to be secret booths. They made voters to mark their vote while they watch them which is an act of duress. This “assistance” forced many voters to mark their ballots in view of the ruling party election officials. In cases where this was noticed, our observers left without signing the final form.
To put it bluntly, the 2010 elections were not free, fair, or democratic by any reasonable standard. The 2015 elections were much the same. Experience shows how deep the ruling party’s machinery runs, how so many local officials, all the way down to the district level, have a vested interest in deterring opposition voters. Prime Minister Abiy deserves credit for enacting new laws and launching an ambitious process of reform. But enacting new laws and repealing old ones does not in itself guarantee free and competitive elections. It will require political will and a culture of enforcing the law that have been absent till now.
Intimidation, fraud, and obstruction are deeply entrenched in Ethiopia’s political culture. It is hard to imagine that Ethiopia’s completely corrupt elections apparatus could be reformed in time for a national poll next year. Ask yourself, realistically, would the Prosperity Party, the successor to EPRDF, a party that has pushed aside all challenges to its rule for nearly three decades, a party with a history of authoritarian behavior, truly be willing to give up power if it lost an election? It is naive to believe the answer could be “yes”.
There is also the issue of electoral redistricting that has not been carried out for quarter of a century despite massive population growth. The federal parliament seats are 547 with one constituency supposed to represent around 100,000. But that number was calculated from the 1994 Population and Housing Census of Ethiopia, which counted 55 million people. Ethiopia had its last census in 2007 but constituency boundaries were not been adjusted based on updated demographics, and the census scheduled for 2017 has not yet been held. What should have been done first before each election is to not just conduct census but also to reorganize the number of voters in each constituency in order to have adequate and equitable representation. Otherwise we end up with millions of under-represented and over-represented citizens.
For example, in the constituency I ran for in 2010, 79,000 voted. That implies possibly more than 300,000 residents in that constituency. That meant more than 200,000 people were effectively not represented. The authorities have failed to discharge their duties in this regard. I emailed an Oromo opposition leader in February 2015 about this issue and they responded: “According to the current population level, Oromia should get more than 220 seats (currently, 178) while the number of Tigrayan seats will be reduced to 32 (from 38). Appealed to the election board and the Oromia regional council before the 2010 elections and both refused because it will involve the reduction of TPLF seats.”
In addition to the country’s culture of election rigging and the outdated electoral map, there are security concerns in parts of Oromia and other regions. In Oromia, a faction of the Oromo Liberation Front led by ‘Jaal Marro’ is still carrying out a guerilla insurgency. Regions such as Borena, Gujii, and Wellega are insecure and unstable; carrying out a successful and fair vote in those areas would be extremely difficult unless there is a dramatic improvement in conditions.
This insecurity partly stems from the party-state losing control of its system of grassroots control. But the problem is the opposition have neither a united front nor strong leadership, creating something of a vacuum. They also lack organization. This is a very dangerous cocktail for the peace and stability of the nation. The public probably support the opposition due to disappointment at the Abiy government, not due to the policy or leadership quality they possess. The opposition, especially in Oromia, do not have strong national agenda or regional policies. Both the ruling party and opposition suffer these problems, but the opposition is the worse.
Of course, the party-state’s disarray makes a more credible election more likely because of the greater freedom. But there are risks associated with it too. In opposition strongholds, there is higher chance for opposition supporters and armed groups to use threats of violence or actual force against voters. In which case, people will vote under intimidation from the opposition rather than from EPRDF as in the past. This will enable the opposition to win more seats but at the same time pave the way for election disputes and violence.
All of the above is not to downplay the significance of Abiy’s reforms; the fact that change is taking place at all paves the way for improvements in the electoral process. The Ethiopian people are freer from fear of the authorities than they have been in recent memory, possibly ever. Many Ethiopians who fled repression under previous regimes have returned home to lead and strengthen public and private institutions. The electoral board head and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commissioner are among them. These appointments are encouraging, but reformists face formidable challenges. The current process of dismantling the EPRDF’s authoritarian system in time for the 2020 elections is simply a bridge too far. Added insecurity from militant groups and violent opposition may lead to post-election disputes and clashes.
I hope I am wrong, but I just do not think we have enough time.
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Edited by Peter Heinlein and William Davison
Main photo: Nagessa Dube on the campaign trail in Haraqallo town in Oromia region in 2010