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Five reasons Ethiopia’s elections will do more harm than good

Multiparty elections can help to produce more legitimate governments that do a better job of giving citizens what they want. On average, democratic countries do better on human rights, development, and economic growth. But held under the wrong conditions — when voters cannot exercise their democratic rights and the process is flawed — elections can have the opposite effect.

Ethiopia’s general elections fall into this category. Despite ongoing civil conflict in the Tigray region, widespread instability and calls for national dialogue ahead of the elections, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is pressing ahead. As a result, polls that have twice been delayed, once in August last year because of Covid-19 and once a week ago, are now scheduled for 21 June.

Abiy hopes that a victory — there is no way he can lose — will make him look like a democratic leader in charge of a united country. But sham elections will do nothing to bring the country together or help Ethiopia to excise the ghosts of the past. 

There are five reasons the elections may do more harm than good, exacerbating inter-communal tensions and leaving some groups feeling even more excluded from the political system.

1. You can’t hold a credible election in the midst of a forced famine

The quality of an election cannot be separated from the broader conditions under which it is held. When he came to power, Abiy promised to break with Ethiopia’s history of flawed polls by holding gold standard elections. 

Instead, the country is heading towards an election with continuing human rights abuses in Tigray — where the government and Eritrean forces are accused of war crimes, including multiple massacres — and under a government that is starving a significant portion of the population. According to the United Nations, Tigray lost more than 90% of its harvest and 80% of its livestock as a result of “looting, burning or destruction”. This would not have led to near famine conditions on its own, if it were not for the government’s blockage of essential relief shipments.

Free and fair elections cannot be held against a backdrop of war crimes and enforced famine.

2. The elections will be divisive and exclusionary 

It’s not just in Tigray where the threat of conflict looms large. Tensions are running high in the Afar and Somali regions, while land disputes between the new regional state of Sidama and the Oromia region are worsening.

Meanwhile, clashes between rival groups in Afar, the Somali regions, northern Showa, South Wollo and four zones in the Oromo special region, are so bad that the government has been forced to establish “command posts” in an attempt to prevent further killings.   

In turn, the delays in voter registration and preparation resulting from widespread insecurity mean the elections will not actually be held on 21 June in parts of the Amhara, Somali, Oromia, Harari, Benishangul-Gumuz, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ regions. In total, more than 40 constituencies will see elections delayed, in some cases by months. For those living in Tigray, no elections will take place.

As a result, many Ethiopians will feel disenfranchised on 21 June.

3. Many are too scared to challenge the ruling party

Opposition has always been a dangerous choice in Ethiopia. In a 2010 article, academic Marco Di Nunzio explained how young people in Addis Ababa faked support for the government to stay safe. Despite Abiy’s reformist pretensions, those who oppose the regime face the same problems today. 

According to Freedom House, Ethiopia’s freedom rating fell to just 22 (on a -100 scale) in 2020, on a par with Chad, another country in the midst of war. In the context of deteriorating respect for civil liberties, and mass arrests that have seen many opposition figures detained without charge, government critics are wary of expressing disapproval. 

The mass censorship and Soviet-esque propaganda campaign waged by the government as part of the Tigray conflict has demonstrated that those who contest the official narrative may be branded enemies of the state, undermining the freedom of speech needed for meaningful elections.

4. Some opposition groups will boycott

Given the distrust between rival parties, it is unsurprising that many opposition groups are likely to boycott the polls.

Some opposition leaders and independent candidates cannot contest because they are in jail. The head of the Oromo Federalist Congress has announced he will not participate while his allies Bekele Gerba and Jawar Mohammed remain in prison. The Oromo Liberation Front has also pulled out for similar reasons. 

It is not just parties that are likely to boycott the elections; the electoral commission recently criticised the Somali region for refusing to take part in response to a decision to close polling stations in contested areas between the Somali and Afar regions.

For its part, Balderas for Genuine Democracy party appears to have finally won the right for its leaders to appear on the ballot on the basis that they have not been found guilty of any crime. But, despite winning at the supreme court and overcoming resistance from the electoral commission — which had stated that it was too late to add them — having to campaign from jail, and with so little time left, will undermine its prospects.

In the absence of a strong opposition, Abiy’s victory will be overwhelming, but hollow.

5. The Electoral Commission isn’t ready

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has failed to prepare adequately for the election, despite numerous delays, and so the most basic tasks — training electoral officials, distributing materials and providing Covid-19 equipment — are unlikely to be completed in time.

Voter registration is perhaps the most pressing concern. According to the NEBE figures, 31.7-million people are registered, well down on the target of 50 million. In turn, low registration and turnout will undermine Abiy’s ability to claim a unifying mandate.

The situation is so desperate that the government has resorted to bribing citizens to register with oil and sugar subsidies. Worse still, opposition parties, including the Ogaden National Liberation Front, allege that the ruling party has effectively taken over the process in parts of the country, carrying off registration books and returning them filled. 

Although the NEBE suspended registration to investigate these allegations, there is growing criticism of its chairperson, Birtukan Medeksa. A letter to five United States senators who had expressed concern about the electoral context suggests she either has no grip on the severity of the situation or has been persuaded to cover-up the NEBE’s failings. 

The electoral commission has also failed to prevent the misuse of state resources and vehicles, and has done nothing to respond to allegations that the distribution of fertiliser is being manipulated to mobilise support for the government — another well-worn election rigging strategy.

The way forward

The level of electoral disorganisation is particularly worrying because administrative mistakes will be interpreted as evidence of electoral malpractice. In turn, poor quality and exclusionary polls will intensify the gap between those who do and do not feel included in Abiy’s Ethiopia, storing up further conflict for the future. 

This does not mean Ethiopia should turn its back on elections. Moving to a one-party state would only further antagonise opposition parties and disaffected groups. Instead, Abiy needs to accept the need for national dialogue, provide urgent aid and assistance to Tigray, end government censorship and human rights abuses, allow opposition leaders to take part and empower the NEBE to conduct a credible voter registration process. 

This may require postponing the polls again, frustrating many of those involved, but it would lead to a better foundation on which to build a new Ethiopia. Otherwise the elections will only serve to reinforce the growing perception that a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize has become just another brutal dictator.

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Nic Cheeseman
Nic Cheeseman

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. He mainly works on democracy, elections and development and has conducted fieldwork in a range of African countries including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The articles that he has published based on this research have won a number of prizes including the GIGA award for the best article in Comparative Area Studies (2013) and the Frank Cass Award for the best article in Democratization (2015). 

Professor Cheeseman is also the author or editor of ten books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018), and Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018). In addition, he is the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Politics, a former editor of the journal African Affairs, and an advisor to, and writer for, Kofi Annan's African Progress Panel. A frequent commentator of African and global events, Professor Cheeseman’s analysis has appeared in the Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, Daily Nation and he writes a regular column for the Mail & Guardian. In total, his articles have been read over a million times. Many of his interviews and insights can be found on the website that he founded and co-edits, www.democracyinafrica.org.

Yohannes Woldemariam
Yohannes Woldemariam is an academic specialising in the Horn of Africa

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