Author’s Note: The regular quinquennial (every 5 years) Ethiopian parliamentary elections generally held in May have been postponed to August 2020. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) explained it needed the extra time to complete the necessary groundwork to properly set up the election. That is prudent action by the NEBE given the complexity and enormity of the task in organizing and executing a free and fair election as shall be demonstrated in the discussion below.
In Part I of this commentary, I reflected on past elections in Ethiopia, my role as an election commentator-cum-critic and advocate and examined the legal and scholarly standards for a free and fair election.
In Part II, I shall examine the recently enacted Proclamation No. 1162/2019 (The Ethiopian Electoral, Political Parties Registration and Election’s Code of Conduct Proclamation [“Proclamation”]) and make the seminal argument that guaranteeing a free and fair election in 2020 is not just the responsibility of the government but most importantly those outside of government. In other words, the best way to have a free and fair election is for all stakeholders to come together in the spirit of Medemer in the run up to the election and work together in good will and good faith for a common cause.
I have prepared the two-part series on the 2020 election in Ethiopia after talking to many learned colleagues and others about their thoughts on what constitutes a “free and fair election”. I regret to say so many of my learned colleagues were simply unaware and uninformed about the international legal standards, the academic literature or best practices in the conduct of free and fair elections and the Ethiopian election law.
On a personal point, when I came to America 50 years ago to study political science as an undergraduate student, I cut my teeth on Almond and Verba’s “Civic Culture” , the groundbreaking study of democratic systems in the U.S., Germany, Mexico, Italy, and the U.K. They argued a “civic culture is based on communication and persuasion, a culture of consensus and diversity and a culture that allows and moderates change.”
Underlying a civic culture that sustains and nurtures democracy must be a strong foundation of the rule of law. As I argued in my April 2012 commentary, a civic culture of rule of law makes genuine multiparty democracy possible through legislative and institutional arrangements for conducting clean, free and fair elections.
Fifty years later, I have transitioned from a foreign undergraduate student of political science to a professor emeritus of political science and a constitutional lawyer. Yet, I am grappling with the very question of “civic culture” of my undergraduate days in retirement as I contemplate and carry water for those young leaders toiling every day to transition Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy.
The irony of the circle of life. I am back to square one.
Proclamation No. 1162/2019 (“The Ethiopian Electoral, Political Parties Registration and Election’s Code of Conduct Proclamation”)
Proclamation No. 1162/2019 [hereinafter “Proclamation] has been criticized by some opposition elements on various grounds: 1) The Proclamation makes it more difficult for the opposition to challenge the ruling coalition. 2) The registration requirement for national parties to prove at least 10 thousand founding members and 4 thousand for local parties is unfair and burdensome. 3) The provision that civil servants must temporarily vacate their jobs if they decide to run for office is unnecessary and unwarranted. 4) The Proclamation was drafted in a “non-inclusive” manner and without consideration of input from the opposition. 5) Last minute changes were made to the Proclamation without knowledge or consultation of the opposition. 6) The rain in August could prevent people from voting. American national elections are held in November when there is much snow and rain but that has not been raised as an objection.
Be that as it may, I have a completely different take on the Proclamation from the perspective of international standards and the scholarly literature on the prerequisites of free and fair elections. (See Part I of this commentary.)
Proclamation No. 1162/2019 is a piece of legislation that has been drafted in meticulous detail with adherence to international standards. In my analysis below, I will only highlight some of the parts I found most impressive. The reader, and anyone who disagrees with my analysis and perspective, is free to review the whole proclamation at the link above and offer an alternative perspective. Indeed, in the interest of public civic education I challenge all stakeholders to undertake theri own comprehensive analysis of the Proclamation.
Overall, the language of the Proclamation meets all of the fundamental requirements for legislation drafted to ensure free and fair election under international standards and is consistent with best practices. The Proclamation unambiguously affirms the fundamental principles of free and fair elections under international standards, defines the various elements and requirements of the electoral process in meticulous detail, grants complete power to the NEBE in managing supervising, monitoring and instituting electoral processes, provides for maximum accountability and transparency of the NEBE and takes extraordinary measures to prevent voter fraud and irregularities.
The Proclamation is organized in nine parts consisting of 164 articles.
It covers a wide range of election related issues including election administration, organization of constituencies and polling stations, voter registration, campaigns, management of the voting process, vote counting and announcement, formation and certification political parties, certification of election observers, voter education, election code of conduct observance and grievances and dispute resolution procedures, among others.
The Proclamation in my view is the equivalent of an owner’s manual on how to run a fair and free election. The owners are the citizen voters, the political parties, civic society institutions and all others interested in transitioning Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy.
At the outset, the Proclamation affirms principles basic to free and fair election: universal suffrage, secret ballot and no discrimination.
The Proclamation (Article 2, inter alia) provides clear and unambiguous definitions on a variety of issues in conducting the electoral process. The definitions are detailed and easy to understand and follow.
The Proclamation insulates the NEBE from political interference. The NEBE has only limited relationship with the House of People’s Representatives and no relationship to the executive branch except in nominating Board members. Regarding the House, in addition to confirmation of Board members, the NEBE only has a reporting relationship including providing audit reports, an annual report and consultations in seeking approval for funding for eligible parties.
The Proclamation vests full powers in the NEBE in all aspects of the electoral process. The NEBE is either directly or indirectly involved or oversees and monitors the establishment of constituencies, polling stations, voter registration and education, verification of eligibility of voters and candidates, observance of the election code of conduct, processing of grievances and other related issues.
The responsibilities placed on the NEBE are enormous and complex. Because of that, I believe the postponement of the election from May to August is justified.
There are many challenges facing the NEBE in its efforts to ensure a free and fair election in 2020.
Organizational set up: There are a variety of mechanisms that need to be established or revitalized. For instance, the NEBE is required to establish branch offices at regional and sub-regional levels and even zonal and constituency levels to provide civic and voter education, preparation of permanent voters’ rolls and so on.
Monitoring mechanisms: The NEBE is required to monitor the election process, monitor and take action on alleged complaints and grievances, independently gather election related information and and even verify the income source, expenditure list and assets of political parties.
Verification process: The NEBE is responsible for ensuring voters and candidates meet detailed eligibility criteria. It has to create mechanisms to ensure proper operation of polling stations and maintain the integrity of the voting process.
Administrative process: The NEBE is responsible for establishing registration timetables and procedures, issuance of certificates, establishment of constituencies, protection of the secret ballot and issuance of directives in a number of areas.
Ensuring integrity of election: The NEBE is responsible for safeguarding against voter fraud, ballot box security and vote counting, providing support for disabled, illiterate voters and voting day management.
Code of conduct enforcement: The NEBE is responsible for observance of the election code of conduct by various stakeholders. As of this writing, the NEBE has announced certain members of a political party are engaging in conduct violative of the election code of conduct by campaigning in violation of the Proclamation. The NEBE also monitors equal access to media, government official neutrality and cooperation and use of campaign literature and conduct of debates.
Election security: The NEBE is responsible for ensuring polling station security, preparation to avoid violence, security of election officials and candidates and over security during the election process.
Regulation of political parties: The NEBE is responsible for the process involving the formation of national and regional parties, verification of founding member requirements, monitoring of candidate recruitment, review of party by-laws, financial statements and approval of merger, formation and coalition of parties.
Management of election observers: Article 114 imposes specific responsibilities on the NEBE with respect to election observers.
Voter civic education: Articles 124 and 125 impose enormous responsibilities on the NEBE in the administration of voter education.
Media: The NEBE has various media-related responsibilities including accreditation, monitoring and oversight.
Grievances and disputes: The NEBE has a central role in establishing grievance and complaint procedures and establishing dispute resolution mechanisms.
A Medemer approach to guaranteeing a free and fair election in Ethiopia in 2020
The only way a free and fair election can be guaranteed in Ethiopia in 2020 is if the BIG players in Ethiopia’s end game of democracy come together in the spirit of Medemer and play their part in good faith. Whether the Ethiopian 2020 election will be free and fair depends on at least three things: 1) how the players in the end game of democracy perform their respective duties, obligations and roles, 2) how the National Elections Board implements the 2019 Election Proclamation and 3) the level of pre-election civic engagement.
I hope to share practical ideas about ensuring a free and fair election in 2020 in forthcoming commentaries. Here I offer a synoptic delineation of what I believe to be the critical roles and contributions of the various stakeholders.
Unlike many, I do not believe at all the fate of the 2020 election is in the hands of the government alone. It is true in the past, the “government” has conducted kangaroo elections winning parliamentary seats by 99.6 (2010) and 100 (2015) percent. Given the historic changes of the past 20 months, the level of international interest, the engagement of opposition parties and general public excitement, such daylight robbery of elections is unlikely to happen in 2020.
I believe a free and fair election in 2020 is guaranteed so long as the stakeholder live up to their civic and legal obligations. The key players in the end game, among others, include citizens, government, civil society, opposition groups and parties, faith institutions, the intellectual community, the media, youth, women, the private sector and the international community.
If the idea of democracy is about a “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” it is clear the role of citizens in elections is of paramount importance. The core idea of democracy is that the citizens are the ultimate holders of power and have the absolute right to choose their system of government through free and fair elections. This is a fundamental proposition affirmed in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of human Rights and numerous other conventions.
To ensure a free and fair election in 2020, Ethiopian citizens have civic obligations. They must understand in a democracy it is their civic duty to vote for their choice of leaders and government. Of course, they have the right not to vote or participate, but they cannot complain later. Voting without a basic understanding of the powers and duties of their government and constitution diminishes their sovereign power. They have an obligation to know their rights and obligations as citizens. They should also know who they are voting for and why. They must be informed about the critical issues in the election and how they like to see them addressed.
Citizen engagement takes many forms. Citizens can energize the election by joining parties, running for office, participating in civic education, providing support to their preferred parties, mobilizing voters, attending meetings to gain information, discuss issues and even campaigning for their candidates.
Government leaders and officials
The role of government and the incumbent administration in safeguarding the electoral process cannot be overstated. It is the national and local governments’ principal responsibility to ensure the integrity of the electoral process and promote and protect broad access to the vote and ensure that every voter’s right to cast a ballot is protected. It is the government has the sole power to protect the electoral process from interference and violence. The government must be ready to deploy the necessary human and material resources to protect the election process from internal and external interference. They must put in place policies and procedures to act swiftly when there is evidence of illegality in the entire elections process.
The National Election Board of Ethiopia is established as an independent and autonomous body with vast responsibilities and powers to ensure a free and fair election. The Board’s principal duty is to ensure impartial administration of the election proclamation and perform its duties with high levels of accountability and transparency. As discussed above, the NEBE has enormous duties and responsibilities.
Scholars, academics and intellectuals
Ethiopian intellectuals have long faced a dilemma. I have been looking for them for a long time as I inquired in my June 2010 commentary, “Where Have the Ethiopian Intellectuals Gone?” More broadly, the role of African intellectuals in the continent leaves much to be desired. Some may consider George Ayittey’s judgment rather harsh: “So hordes of politicians, lecturers, professionals, lawyers, and doctors sold themselves off into prostitution and voluntary bondage to serve the dictates of military vagabonds with half their intelligence.”
I believe a higher calling awaits Ethiopia’s intellectuals in the 2020 election. I agree with the late Prof. Edward Said who wrote the role of the intellectual is “not always a matter of being a critic of government policy, but rather of thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of constant alertness, of a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along…”
I also agree with the late Czech president, human rights advocate and playwright Vaclav Havel said, “The intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world… should be the chief doubter of systems, of power and its incantations, should be a witness to their mendacity.”
Ethiopian intellectuals can play a critical role in ensuring a free and fair election in 2020 by engaging in scholarship and debate on democracy, educating the public and raising the level of discourse in society.
My view is that the paramount role for Ethiopian intellectuals is to become a voice for the voiceless, the marginalized, the weak, the uneducated and the impoverished. Others may disagree.
I consider myself an “organic activist public intellectual” because I am involved in a small way in helping to build up democracy and the rule of law in Ethiopia. What I am doing in this two-part commentary and the over one thousand commentaries I have written over the past 14 years attests to that fact.
Other intellectuals can articulate their own roles but there are core values that we must all share despite our opinions and partisanship in the 2020 elections.
Ethiopian intellectuals can contribute to the conduct of a free and fair election by teaching the public on democratic practices that work and do not. They can share useful ideas and solutions to Ethiopia’s diverse problems. They can shape social change and public opinion through their scholarship, speeches, writing and public appearances. They can develop policies and strategies for the society at large or for partisan causes. They can come together can apply pressure and influence on the government. They can help their preferred parties and candidates by drafting policy proposals, collecting data and providing analysis to help them win elections.
Political opposition groups and parties
The days of the winner-takes-all are gone. In 2015, the TPLF claimed to have won 100 percent of the seats in the parliament and 99.6 percent in 2010.
Over the past decades, opposition political parties and groups have been victimized, suppressed, persecuted and prosecuted. Following the 2005 election, dozens of opposition party leaders were imprisoned and 35 given life sentences.
Opposition parties in Ethiopia have been weakened not only by the incumbent regimes but also by their own lack of internal democracy, ideological conflicts, factional internal struggles over position and succession and the curse of cultish leadership that has been a bane on opposition politics.
Opposition parties could play a critical role in shaping policy agendas, conducting civic education, fighting corruption and generally holding the government accountable and transparent. They can organize campaigns, recruit candidates and mobilize citizens to engage in elections and the political process.
Unfortunately, Ethiopian opposition parties in the past have been adept at criticizing the government than offering alternatives. In the 2020 election, they can be successful if they are able to offer clear alternatives to the ruling party’s policies, ideas and programs. They are unlikely to win the hearts and minds of the citizens by moaning and groaning and playing victimology.
Of course, opposition parties do not have the same resources as the ruling party. That is why it is necessary for the Board to ensure a level playing field for them in terms of access and fair treatment and provide resources for them as set forth in Article 100.
Civil society institutions (CSO) in Ethiopia were virtually criminalized by the TPLF regime. The 2009 Proclamation, described as the “most restrictive of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa” “decimated independent civil society in Ethiopia by placing draconian restrictions on the ability of civil society organizations to raise funds, choose their areas of engagement and form coalitions and partnerships.” All that has changed with a new proclamation.
Civil society institutions could play a variety of roles in the 2020 election including “watchdog” ensuring compliance of various provisions of the electoral laws by the Board, candidates and political parties. They could monitor and blow the whistle when things are occurring in violation of law. They can mobilize broad, diverse, and large-scale participation in their electoral activities. They can educate citizens, promote dialogue and bring broad-based consensus on basic national issues, create the right environment for debate, dialogue and compromise. They can promote pluralism and tolerance. Articles 115, 124 and 125 of the Proclamation provide specific roles for civic society in the election process.
The importance and role of the media in general in the 2020 election is going to be critical. Their role covers the whole gamut beginning with the pre-election period and continuing through the campaign period voting day and the counting of the results.
The media could play a number of critical roles in the 2020 election: 1) as watchdogs, 2) public educators (e.g. political agendas of all participating parties and candidates equally) and 3) facilitators of public debates (hold open forums for debates), among other things.
In the past, the problem has been the incumbent party has abused state-owned media for partisan purposes by making them mouthpieces for the ruling party. Privately-owned media have been sensitive to the political climate and not to offend the ruling party which licenses them.
The media can play a significant role by serving as the public voice, analyst and interpreter of the entire electoral process. The media can sponsor dialogues and debates that include the diversity of voices in Ethiopian society and engage experts, candidates and officials in public forums.
Articles 44 and 126 of the Proclamation provide a regulatory scheme for the operation of media in the electoral process.
Social media has raised the issue of hate speech and the likely effect of social media on the 2020 election. I have addressed that issue at length in my recent two-part commentaries.
The international community in the past has tried to play a constructive and positive role in Ethiopian elections. Previous regimes in Ethiopia have looked at the role of the international community more as an interference than help. That is no longer true today as many international agencies and bodies are providing electoral assistance.
In its January 2019 summary report, USAID outlined its assistance to Ethiopia in four areas of good governance: 1) enhancing the status of human rights protection and systems, 2) local capacity development, 3) sustained dialogue and 4) strengthening institutions for peace and development.
I am aware USAID in other countries has promoted good governance and democratic reforms through programming in election administration, political party support, parliamentary strengthening, technical support for electoral boards and commissions, funding for voter education and registration activities, with particular emphasis on targeting women, youth, and people with disabilities, national voter information, education and mobilization campaigns.
If such programming is not taking place in Ethiopia, it should be considered as it has been very useful in other countries.
The UN Development Programme also runs an ”election support project” in Ethiopia to enhance the conduct of transparent, efficient and inclusive elections to develop capacities to conduct public outreach and external communication activities.
The European Union has programs to support the “establishment of governments through free and fair elections” in Ethiopia. Administered through the European Center for Electoral Support, it “works with all electoral stakeholders, including electoral management bodies, civil society organizations involved in voter education and election observation, political parties, parliaments, media, security forces, religious groups and legal institutions confronted with electoral disputes resolution.
I believe it is useful to seek election assistance from countries that have had successful projects in other countries.
It is estimated that young people constitute 70 percent of the Ethiopia’s 100 million people. I am not aware of any voter studies on Ethiopia’s young people but I am informed that they are generally disengaged from the political processes, despite the previous regime’s effort to buy their support. I am also informed that there is cynicism and distrust of institutions among the young people and they are affected by a feeling of economic exclusion and marginalization.
It appears at least among the active youth community social media plays an important role. My view is that social media platforms are used in negative and destructive ways, especially to spread fear, alarm, fake news disinformation and spreading rumors that could cause violence. I have addressed that issue in my November 2019 commentary.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to electoral-related violence, harassment and intimidation during registration and polling and other pressures and interference in their exercise of their right to vote.
All stakeholders should make extraordinary efforts to mobilize and engage the youth population in the electoral process. Youth training in grassroots mobilizing and organizing could prove very effective in ensuring a free and fair election in 2020.
However, before young people could be properly involved or represented in political institutions and elections, they must know their rights and be given the necessary knowledge and capacity to participate in a meaningful way at all levels.
Youth inclusion in the electoral process is going to be one of the challenging aspects of the 2020 election but with unified commitment by all stakeholders, the outcome should be positive.
It is self-evident women are treated differently in society and political process not only in Ethiopia but worldwide. Ethiopia “suffers from some of lowest gender equality performance indicators in sub-Saharan Africa and women and girls are strongly disadvantaged compared to boys and men in several areas, including literacy, health, livelihoods and basic human rights.”
In the past two years, under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has been a stellar example for the world.
The simple fact is Ethiopia is poor because its women are poor. Period!
There can be no free and free election when women are not actively engaged in the electoral process not just as voters but also as candidates, politicians, civil society activists and other capacities.
Women’s participation in political processes in Ethiopia lags considerably mostly because of structural gender inequality issues and discrimination.
I have seen it hundreds of times over the past 14 years at diaspora meetings. I cannot say that I have attended a meeting, conference or forum where women constituted more than 10 ten percent of the attendees tops.
In July 2010, in my commentary, “Speaking Truth on Behalf of Ethiopian Women”, I complained about the mistreatment of women in Ethiopia and called for a special movement championing Ethiopian women’s human rights, “hu(wo)men’s rights”.
It is highly encouraging that the proportion of seats held by women in Ethiopia’s parliament today is 38.76 percent.
If there is going to be a free and fair election in 2020, mechanisms must be found to significantly enhance the participation of women in the elections not only as candidates and party leaders but also as voter educators, campaigners, debate participants, election observers, journalists, moderators and other activities.
I believe the private sector (collectively small and big businesses) have “corporate social responsibility (that is, social accountability) in ensuring the 2020 election will be free and fair.
In past elections, small and big business owners have been squeezed by the ruling party for contributions and campaign support. The EPRDF coalition acted independently when it came to getting campaign contributions often extorting donations over and over. Some business owners have been coopted and others forced to engage in corrupt practices in their relations with the parties.
I believe the private sector could engage in its own activism and philanthropy in supporting a free and fair election in 2020.
The private sector could help finance the efforts of civic societies to “get out the vote”, help get more voters to the polls, encourage their employees to register to vote, among other things.
Faith institutions and community leaders
I believe in separation of state and religion. Article 11 of the Ethiopian Constitution provides, “The State shall not interfere in religious affairs; neither shall religion interfere in the affairs of the State.”
Having said that, I believe faith institutions can play a very positive and mediatory role in the 2020 election.
Ethiopia is taking baby steps in its transition to democracy. There are deep ethnic and communal rifts. There are tensions which could erupt in violence in the run up to the election and during the voting process. I have little doubt that elements of the previous regime are plotting to wreak havoc as the election date draws near. Disrupting and derailing the 2020 election is the TPLF’s “Hail Mary pass”, to use an American sports vernacular. Disrupting the 2020 election is the TPLF’s last ditch effort to return to power. They will fail!
Regardless, I believe faith leaders and community elders could play a major role and exert great influence on the 2020 elections in a variety of ways. I see a critical role for faith leaders in peace messaging, civic education and moderating debates. I see a role for faith leaders even in election monitoring, observance of election code of conduct and launching intra- and inter-faith dialogue and initiatives to ensure a free, fair and peaceful 2020 election.
There was a time when I believed diaspora Ethiopians could make a huge difference in Ethiopia. In July 2006, I wrote a commentary entitled “Awakening Giant” and ask a single question: Can Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans living in America make a difference in their home land?”
But in the past 20 months, diaspora Ethiopians have shown they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Having seen an Ethiopian diaspora in an emotional roller coaster over the past 20 months, I have become more cynical about the importance of an Ethiopian diaspora driven by emotions and has cast reason and facts to the wind.
I am saddened by the fact that diaspora Ethiopians are missing out on Ethiopia’s democratic renaissance.
Unlike some African countries that give their diaspora citizens the right to vote in national elections (Mali, Senegal, Benin, Algeria, Namibia and Mozambique), the previous regime viewed the vast majority of the Ethiopian diaspora as its enemies.
That completely changed when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018. PM Abiy in his inaugural speech welcomed all diasporans with open arms and without any preconditions. He said, “Come home. We welcome you.”
Even I who never imagined a return home returned after 48 years living in America!
We have a huge stake in the outcome of the 2020 elections but have made ourselves irrelevant.
I have learned diaspora Ethiopians are not held in high regard among the locals. They view us with a certain detachment and contempt. They accuse of complicity with the previous repressive regime and using our money to dispossess the poor people of their land and increasing the cost of living. It is said we have returned to flaunt our money for a few weeks and go back to wherever we came from.
Truth be told, our contribution to Ethiopia’s development collectively is miniscule. Truth be told, less than 26 thousand diasporans contributed to the Ethiopian Diaspora Trust Fund.
Except for seeking diaspora donations, I do not see any of the political parties coming to educate, mobilize and engage the diaspora in an organic way.
Except for a few opinion leaders, educators and journalist-wannabes who spout hate, disinformation and lies, the vast majority of diasporans are silent who are only riled up like chickens in a coop at the sight of an imaginary fox.
We are not part of the national debate in Ethiopia. We are merely bystanders and onlookers. We have no one to blame but ourselves.
But there is a basic principle we can follow: If we cannot help in a positive way, if we cannot lead or follow, the only option left is to get the hell out of the way!
Will the 2020 election be perfect and flawless?
In talking to some of my colleagues, I get the impression they expect a “perfect election” in 2020. There is no such thing as a “perfect election”. Only those who “won” 100 percent of the seats in 2015 can talk about a “perfect election.”
In any election, there will be issues and problems. Even today, the U.S. is reeling from the 2016 foreign election meddling. There is litigation on disenfranchisement of the poor and minority communities, arbitrary application of voter ID rules, the role of big money in elections, redistricting and other issues. Who can forget the Florida election vote recount in the Bush v. Gore presidential contest of 2000 that took weeks to settle. The Florida vote was ultimately settled in Bush’s favor by a margin of 537 votes following a controversial decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
If America with its two-century tradition of democratic elections continues to suffer from electoral issues, Ethiopia in its very first experiment in free and fair election cannot be expected to have a “perfect election”. But we can certainly expect and should work together in the spirit of Medemer and in good faith and good will to make sure the 2020 election adheres to fundamental principles of free and fair elections and best practices.
“Where are our Men [and women] of abilities? Why do they not come forth to save their Country?” ―George Washington
So, I say to all Ethiopians: VOTE 2020!