Election Campaigns and Voters’ Responsibilities for Ethiopia’s 2020 Election
By Assefa A. Lemu, February 28, 2020
The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced that the sixth round Ethiopia’s General Election will be held on August 29, 2020. The previous five general elections which were held in 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015 were criticized for not being free, fair, and transparent. Could this year’s general election in Ethiopia be different from the previous general elections? Are the political parties ready for the election? Do they have alternative and better policies to improve the lives of Ethiopians?
On February 21, 2020, Ethiopian Political Parties Council in which about 106 national and regional political parties are members discussed the upcoming Ethiopian election and out of the 52 parties attended the meeting, 41 parties objected holding the election and requested for postponement, six parties supported the holding of the election as scheduled, and five parties abstained. These show that about 90% of 106 political parties of Ethiopia are not ready for the upcoming election.
To win in the upcoming Ethiopian election and establish government, getting majority seats (50% plus one seat) in the Ethiopia’s 547 seats of the House of Peoples’ Representatives (the lower House of the parliament), i.e., securing a minimum of 274 seats is required. To get the necessary votes and seats, preparation and convincing the voters is required. The popular method of convincing voters is through election campaign. The voters have the responsibility to identify a political party that can help them achieve their desires. Therefore, below, I will briefly discuss election campaigns and voters’ responsibilities in relation to Ethiopia’s 2020 general election.
- Election Campaigns
An election campaign, also known as a political campaign, is a communication process, to find the right messages, to communicate those messages to the right group of voters, and to repeat those messages again and again (J. Brian O’Day, Political Campaign Planning Manual, p. 6). It is the way politicians or political parties try to persuade people to say “yes” to their plan and to vote for them. To that end, the political parties need to 1) have plans (political, economic, and social road maps), 2) communicate these plans or programs or policies or roadmaps to the voters and convince them that it is good enough or better than the plans of their competitors or opponents. To effectively communicate with the voters, preparation is critical and preparation may include: knowing the target voters, identifying the right messages to be conveyed, who are conveying the messages, what means of communication (TV, radio, Social media, etc) to use, and how to cover campaign costs.
In election campaign, targeting the voters is important because it helps to effectively and efficiently use campaign resources (time, money, and people) and craft messages that will best persuade targeted voters. If you know your target voters and identified what make them different from other voters who will not support you, then there is no need to waste your precious time and money on voters who will not vote for you no matter what you say or do.
As some groups argue, this year’s Ethiopian election is not an ordinary periodic election but a referendum for deciding whether to go back to pre-1991 centralized unitary system or maintaining the gains achieved since 1991 including the current constitution and the current multinational federal structure and building up on these gains and moving forward. If this argument is true, the competitors in the upcoming Ethiopian election could be categorized into two broad categories: the “federalists” who wants to maintain the current multinational federal structure and the constitution to be changed only through the procedures prescribed in the constitution itself (legal means) and the “promoters of citizenship politics” who want to change the current federal arrangement and want to change the constitution through political decision (political means). Unfortunately, because of various reasons which include lack of trust to each other and selfishness, we don’t see the 106 political parties currently operating in Ethiopia organizing themselves under these two broad groups.
In addition, while “promoters of citizenship politics” group is showing relatively better performance in promoting their objectives and in blackening the multinational federal structure and the current constitution, the “federalists” are wasting their time either in selling grievances on the past or licking their wounds caused by the 2018 change in government leadership. The benefits of changes introduced in 1991 are about to fade away from the memories of the people because of continuous blemish through various press and electronics media, literature, art, and oral campaigns. Unless the “federalists” wake up and take actions to defend the constitution, the federal structure, and the right of nations, nationalities, and peoples (group rights), it is inevitable that Ethiopia will slide back to the pre-1991 situation. The role of media, art, and other outreach methods must be taken seriously.
As stated in various sections of New Testament, Jesus got many followers by repeatedly teaching his audience (campaigning) and by telling them how his way is different from that of others. For example as written under John 10:7-13, “ … Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
In my opinion, this is the best example of messaging to convince the audience and make them support and follow you. Jesus conveyed his message repeatedly which is a key in campaigning, he clearly showed the difference between him (the good shepherd) and others whom he said thieves and robbers, he told his audience that he cares for them even to the extent of laying his life for them but others do not care for them and explained the reason why others do not care, because they are hired hands. He also clearly told them the benefits they will get by following him (freedom of coming in and going out and getting good pasture) and the danger they face if they follow others (the risk of being abandoned at a critical moment, to be attacked by enemy, and scattering by losing unity).
Having good messages, effective means of communication and funds to cover the costs of the campaign alone are not sufficient. The campaigners must be ready to go through rough roads and to make many twists and turns. Personal characteristics that show the abilities of candidates or leaders to handle emerging situations and crisis are as important as having clear positions on important issues. Particularly, the leaders and candidates of political parties who compete in Oromia, which is the main battle ground, may face tough challenges. Even though the official timetable unveiled by National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) says election campaigns start on May 28, 2020 and ends on August 24, 2020, some political parties like Oromo Federalist Congress and Prosperity Party already started the election campaigns. Following these illegal election campaigns, conflicts between the supporters of these political parties intensified. The rematerializing of the traditional brutal actions of Ethiopian security forces which injured at least 30 people on February 20, 2020 in Aweday town, Eastern Oromia that angered the victims and their sympathizers and the shocking killing of Oromia police officers in Burayou town on February 21, 2020, an explosion which injured about 30 people in Ambo town on February 23, 2020, and the attack on Ginchi Police Station with grenade on February 24, 2020 are some of the indications of insecurities that may follow the election campaigns.
According to some sources, three or more individuals particularly youth cannot hang-out together in some towns of Oromia after 6 p.m. If they are found hanging out in group of three or more, security forces will “read a riot act” to them to immediately disperse themselves or face serious penalties like England did in the 18th century for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. This is provoking action to some residents particularly the Qerro (Oromo youth) who think victimized by the group they helped take top government powers. Unless the tensions in Oromia and other parts of Ethiopia handled wisely, it is highly likely that the country may enter into another chapter of conflict and even large scale civil war.
- Responsibilities of Voters
As stated under Article 127(1)(a) and (b) of the Ethiopian Electoral, Political Parties Registration, and Election’s Code of Conduct Proclamation No. 1162/2019, voters have the rights and responsibilities to (a) make an informed decision based on comprehensive information provided during the electoral campaign regarding the policies of political parties and characters of candidates on their own free will and (b) vote freely, without any interference, fear, pressure, undue influence as well as without bribery and other inducements. Article 127(2)(c) also puts an obligation on all political parties to respect the decision of the voters which means the voters have the rights and responsibilities to make sure that their decisions are respected. In addition, Article 130(1) of the proclamation states that the voting process must be conducted in a peaceful manner, without any interference in the right of voters, and in a free, fair and democratic way. That means the voters have the rights and responsibilities to refuse accepting any interference. Any political party shall not coerce, offer bribe, or offer other inducements to voters so they can vote for or against a particular party or candidate, or to abstain from voting (Article 136 (1)). In short, no one has a right to intimidate or prevent the voters from registering or voting.
Furthermore, the voters have the following responsibilities:
- Registration: Registration is the first important step in voting. Anyone who meets the criteria to be registered as a voter must be registered in a polling station where he or she resides. It must be clear that there is no voting without registration and the registration is done within the limited one month window which is from April 22 to May 21, 2020.
- Know the Candidates and Issues: During the election campaign, the competing parties and candidates try their best to look good and sell their ideas to the voters. The voters must carefully examine their policies, promises and the impact these policies and promises have on them. What are their theories of change and how these theories of change are different from each other? Where does the policy of each party take us and how it addresses the issue we believe is very important for us? Before making a decision, each voter must evaluate the program and promises of the competitors. Are the promises feasible and actionable? What does the past performance/ track record of the candidate look like? Does it have the necessary capacity/ capability to implement the proposed programs/ policies and what approaches it will use to implement them?
- Casting the Vote: Registered votes should make every effort to go to the polling station on the Election Day and cast their vote to the candidate of their choice. Anyone who fails to use the privilege to vote allows other voters to make decisions for him or her and that decision will impact his/her rights and freedom. As Plato said, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”.
- Protecting the Ballots: Protection of ballots is as important as voting. Not only the representatives of the competing parties and election observers, but also as much as possible the supporters of the parties must attend the counting of the ballots and witness the signing of the minutes of the polling station. There may be polling stations which do not have electric lights and where the flashlights provided by the NEBE may fail or intentionally made to fail. Therefore, supporters of the parties must fully charge their mobile phones, backup batteries, and portable power-banks and prepare flashlights. It is the responsibilities of the voters to protect their votes/decisions without violating the law.
Many people dismiss their political responsibilities, particularly their voters’ responsibilities by saying that they do not care whoever wins and takes power. Political carelessness of citizens is an incentive for politicians in power to misuse their authorities. As the anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, Steve Biko, put it “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. The people shouldn’t be the contributors to their own repression.
In fact, the preparation of voters alone doesn’t bring good result out of election. The political parties and candidates representing the competing political parties also must prepare very well. For example, in 1992, OLF wasted the preparation of voters to vote by withdrawing from June 1992 election and in 2005, Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) wasted the voters’ voice given to it by refusing to take the seat it won in 2005 election.
Moreover, the competing political parties must use the safer option to take government power and prepare for election rather than considering the risky brave option. Sitting on the fence with indecisiveness affects their performance in election and hurts their supporters. No one benefits from muddying and spoiling the political environment. I hope Ethiopian political parties learn from their past mistakes and from Albert Einstein’s advice that doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t bring different results but it is simply insanity. Intimidation of voters, vote rigging, and other election scandals tried in the past but didn’t lead to the establishment of legitimate and stable government. Therefore, it would be better if the political parties learn from past mistakes and made their contributions to make the upcoming election successful.
If we go back into the history of voting in Ethiopia, we are reminded that vote manipulation left a big scar on Ethiopian history. In the wish to have more control over Eritrea through vote manipulation, Ethiopia suffered from 30 years of civil war and finally lost Eritrea. The Ethio-Eritrea Federation (Sept 11, 1952 – November 14, 1962) was dissolved by manipulation of votes in both Eritrean Assembly and Ethiopian Parliament. As a result, Eritreans lost their autonomy and Tigrigna was banned in education and replaced by Amharic. Eritreans who were angered by the political intrigues of the Ethiopian Government and manipulation of the votes, established Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) led by Hamid Idris Awate and started war for independence. The shooting against Ethiopian Government forces was started on September 1, 1961 and then intensified and continued until Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) led by Mr. Isaias Afeworki controlled Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea, on May 24, 1991 by defeating the Ethiopian Government forces. This 30-year of devastating war was the outcome of vote manipulation for the centralization of power by reducing the status of Eritrea from the federal unit to a simple province of the Ethiopian Empire.
Regardless of strong warning from states like Tigrai, Oromia, and Somali, the current Ethiopian Government led by Dr. Abiy Ahmed is moving to the direction of repeating the mistake done 58 years ago by attempting to centralize political power through reduction of the status of federal units to ordinary provinces in violation of the principles enshrined in the constitution. We are noticing the cadres Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed is dispatching from the center to States/Regions including Shimelis Abdisa who was sent to Oromia to rule the State by replacing Lemma Megersa. If vote manipulations added to the ongoing political intrigues to centralize power in violation of the constitution, it may pose threat to the peace and security as well as democratic process in Ethiopia. Therefore, voter and non-voter Ethiopians must be courageous enough to stand against any illegal actions that will affect their future and the future of their country.