EPRDF and Election in Ethiopia

EPRDF and Election in Ethiopia

By Assefa A. Lemu, November 24, 2018

Background: Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is a political organization established in 1989 by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which was established in 1975 and the then Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement(EPDM), later  known as the Amhara Democratic Movements (ANDM) and now Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) which was established in 1982. Later, the two political organization created by TPLF namely, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) which was created in1990 and now called Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and  the Southern Peoples Democratic Front (SEPDF) which was created in 1992 and now called Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDEM) made the members of EPRDF. After taking government power in May 1991, EPRDF created affiliated parties (allied parties) like the Somali People’s Democratic Party (SPDP), the Benishengul Gumuz People’s Democratic Party (BGPDP), the Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP), the Gambela People’s Unity Democratic Movement (GPUDM), and the Harari National League (HNL) to govern their respective States on its behalf. These EPRDF affiliated parties are called “Agar Partiwoch” and controlled by EPRDF.

Since 1995, Ethiopia has held parliamentary elections regularly every five year and EPRDF won all the five rounds of election (in 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015) and has been ruling Ethiopia for 27 years.  In the eyes of EPRDF, the elections held in all five rounds are considered free and fair. However, the evaluation of the opposition parties shows the opposite of what EPRDF says.

After 2005 election, EPRDF increased its members significantly. For example, the number of total EPRDF members (the individual members under the four member organizations of EPRDF) increased from 700,000 in 2005 to 6.5 million in 2013 (EPRDF in Brief). The intensified recruitment of members was done with the promise to reward their membership and loyalty with career advancement within government and the EPRDF (Ethiopia’s 100% Election).

Compared to the results of all the five round elections, the General Election of 2005 was the election in which the opposition parties won more seats (170 seats) in the parliament. In 2010 election, the opposition parties won only one seat and in the recent 2015 election they won zero.

Legal Frameworks for Election: The legal bases for holding election in Ethiopia are the Constitution and the electoral laws of Ethiopia, as amended. Article 38 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) says: “Every Ethiopian national, without any discrimination based on color, race, nation, nationality, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion or other status, has the following rights: (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly and through freely chosen representatives; (b) On the attainment of 18 years of age, to vote in accordance with law;(c) To vote and to be elected at periodic elections to any office at any level of government; elections shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors”. Proclamation No. 438/2005 “Proclamation to make Electoral Law of Ethiopia Conform with the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (Amendment) and Proclamation No. 532/2007 to amend the Ethiopian Electoral Law of Ethiopia  provides further legal basis for the election. Proclamations No. 111/1995, proclamation to ensure the conformity of the Electoral Law of Ethiopia with the Constitution of the FDRE and Proclamation No. 187/2000, amended proclamation to ensure the conformity of the Electoral Law of Ethiopia with the Constitution of the FDRE have been repealed by Proclamation No. 532/2007.

Article 9(3) of the Constitution prohibits assuming state power in any manner other than that provided under the Constitution. That means the only lawful way to take government power in Ethiopia is through election. Therefore, election is very important for the political parties and for the private citizens. As a matter of fact, debates are going on at the formal forums and informal forums about the upcoming election in Ethiopia. In this article, I will briefly discuss some of the points under these debates.

  1. Election Board or Election Commission: One of the ongoing debates regarding reforming the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) is changing its name from “Board” to “Commission”. Some argue that changing the name of the Board from “board” to “commission” increases its power and enhances its performance (የምርጫ ቦርድ አወቃቀርና ስልጣን). In reality, this debate is more of a form (packaging) or branding than content.According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “board” is “a committee of persons organized under authority of law in order to exercise certain authorities, have oversight or control of certain matters, or discharge certain functions of a magisterial, representative, or fiduciary character” (The Law Dictionary ). The same dictionary defines “commission” as “a board or committee officially appointed and empowered to perform certain acts or exercise certain jurisdiction of a public nature”. In short, both board and commission represent a group of people appointed to run an organization or perform certain duties. The independence and trustworthiness of an organization hinges upon its operation not on its name. Changing the name from board to commission makes the organization neither independent nor dependable. The emphasis on the name change is like serving the ‘old wine in new bottle’ and doesn’t bring substantive change or value to the election system. The other point to consider in relation to changing the name of NEBE is the legal requirement. Changing the name of the Board requires amending the Constitution. Article 102(1) of the Constitution of FDRE says “There shall be established a National Election Board independent of any influence, to conduct in an impartial manner free and fair election in Federal and State constituencies”.The argument which says, board is temporary and commission is permanent (ESAT Eletawi Thu 22 Nov 2018) also doesn’t hold water.  Article 4(2) of Proclamation No.532/2007 says “For the purpose of conducting elections, the Board shall have permanent and temporary branch offices from federal down to polling station level”. An organization exists as far as it has a purpose to exist, not because of its name.   As the Amharic saying goes “melke tifun besim yidegifu”, changing the name of NEBE from board to commission doesn’t add any vale except trying to make it beautiful by wrapping it with a new package.  The objective shouldn’t be about having a bimbo organization but to have well- functioning, independent, and dependable organization.  Therefore, it would be better to focus on how to build its capacity and improve its operation rather than beautifying its name.
  1. Consultation with Opposition Parties: The recent nomination and approval of the Chairwoman for the NEBE shows that Ethiopian politics is heading once again back to square one. It is one of the indications that when it comes to the serious business, what EPRDF leaders are practically doing are the same as previous. They give big promises when they think there are imminent dangers and then backtrack after solidifying their powers. They rollback their plans to bring promised changes. As Albert Einstein said, doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results is insanity.According to Article 6 of Proclamation No. 532/2007, a proclamation to amend the Electoral Law of Ethiopia “The Board shall have nine members appointed in accordance with Article 102 of the Constitution by the House of Peoples’ Representatives upon recommendation by the Prime Minister. The prime Minister shall, before nominating Board members who fulfill the criteria, ensure that there has been sufficient consultation forum for political organizations that have seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives to ascertain that the nominees are independent and impartial. ….. The members shall: a) be loyal to the Constitution; b) be non-partisans; c) have professional competence; d) be known for their good conduct” (Proclamation No. 532/2007 – A Proclamation to Amend the Electoral Law of Ethiopia).On November 22, 2018, the Ethiopian House of Peoples’ Representatives approved Ms. Birtukan Misdeksa who was one of the leaders of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), who was accused of treason and jailed for 39 months (three years and three months) , and who returned from seven years of exile in the United States on November 7, 2018 on the promise to become head of the election board (Ethiopian’s Birtukan Mideksa appointed election boss).Currently, there is no opposition political organizations that has seat in the House of Peoples’ Representatives and, technically speaking, the Prime Minister has no legal obligation to have “sufficient consultation forum for political organizations” to ascertain the nominee of Chairperson and members of the Election Board are independent and impartial. Since the House is fully controlled by EPRDF and its partner organizations that approve anyone nominated by the Prime Minister without sufficient vetting and checking of legal sufficiency, the Prime Minister can pick anyone he wants without worrying about the chance of approval of the nominee.Ethiopian Prime Minister and Ethiopian Parliament are doing business as usual. Out of about 80 registered and unregistered political organizations, the leaders of Blue Party and Arbegnoch Ginbot 7 confirmed that they were consulted by the Prime Minister Dr. Abiy on the nomination of Ms. Birtukan Mideksa and they said they gave their endorsements. These two organizations are the offspring of CUD in which Birtukan was a member and one of the leaders. The leader of the third political party (Oromo Federalist Congress), Dr. Merera Gudina didn’t confirm about the consultation and didn’t provide his party’s full endorsement (ወ/ት ብርቱካን የምርጫ ቦርድ ሰብሳቢ ሆነው መሾማቸውን ተከትሎ የተፎካካሪ ፓርቲ አመራሮች የሰጡት አስተያየት). Therefore, the consultation made to nominate Birtukan Mideksa is 0.025% and cannot be considered substantial.After her appointment as a Chairwoman of NEBE, Birtukan Mideksa who was asked by ESAT if she is non-partisan or not said “I am very happy to return to use this opportunity to fulfill my objective which has been the reason for my participation in politics”. To put what she said in Amharc word by word “Bezih edil tetekime kemeneshaw lepoletika tesatfo menesha yehonegnin alamayen lemasakat bememelese betam destegna negn” (ESAT Special interview with Birtukan Mideksa Chair of Ethiopian Electoral Board Nov 2018). This is very open to different interpretation regarding her partisanship.The hair-raising issue is that why Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed who talked a lot about inclusive politics and has a plan to hold a meeting with leaders of opposition parties registered in Ethiopia on November 27, 2018 to discuss electoral reforms (PM Dr Abiy To Meet With Leaders Of Opposition Parties) rushed to get the approval of Ms. Birtukan Mideksa before sufficient consultation is made with the opposition party leaders? When do EPRDF leaders live up to their words? Does such approach of putting cart before the horse and making unilateral decision earn trust for the Election Board and buy-in from opposition parties? When does Ethiopian politics get out of deceiving and conspiracy? Is this EPRDF’s negotiation strategy with the opposition parties on the electoral reform?Furthermore, Prime Minister Dr. Abiy (ዋልታ ቲቪ 14/03/2011 ዓ.ም የጠዋት 12፡30 ዜና | Walta TV News 6:30 AM 11/23/2018 ) and Attorney General Berhanu Tsegaye who said “Her return is initiated by Ethiopian government as her skills and experiences are needed” tried to portrait Birtukan as a person who has unique capability and integrity. This is undermining the contribution of those Ethiopians who despised running away from the struggle and contributed much more to bring political change in Ethiopia and who have comparatively higher legal and political knowledge. Some argue that Birtukan’s decision to release Siye Abreha on bail in 2001 shows her superior integrity. Interpreting the law correctly and making justice is the duty of every judge. If we do an inventory of similar decisions, we may find thousands of judges in Ethiopia. Simply, it seems that the current Ethiopian leadership is more attracted by the so called “diaspora” and we may see more and more returnees taking high positions in Ethiopian government. When will the government values the contribution of citizens fairly and for how long we sing the old song of “Ethiopia agere mogn nesh telala, yemotelish kerto yegedelesh bela”?
  1. The Promise to Make Ethiopian Election 2020 Free and Fair: One of the duties of NEBE is to “facilitate and ascertain that elections held periodically and at every level are conducted in a free and fair manner”. Free and Fair election is an election where those citizens qualify to vote have the freedom and right to be registered and make their own decision regarding who they vote for and where all registered political parties have an equal right to campaign for voters support and contest for political power.For all previous five rounds of election, EPRDF leaders promised to make the election fair and fair, but those promises were not kept. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenaw had promised to make Ethiopian Election 2005 flawless. Unfortunately, it was one of the bloodiest elections Ethiopia held in its history.  The current Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy has promised to make the 2020 General Election free and fair. Some are skeptical about the practicality of this promise because they some several broken promises before. Others are hoping the Prime Minister is determined his promise. We will wait and see if the promise holds this or not.
  1. Delaying the General Election: As stated under Article 45 of the Constitution, Ethiopia has a parliamentarian form of government. Members of the lower House of the Parliament (House of Peoples’ Representatives) are elected for five years. This is clearly stated under Article 54 of the Constitution which says “Members of the House of Peoples’ Representatives shall be elected by the People for a term of five years on the basis of universal suffrage and by direct, free and fair elections held by secret ballot”. As it stands now, the next General Election in which the House of Peoples’ Representatives and Regional State councils will be elected should be held in May 2020. Per Article 58 (3) of the Ethiopian Constitution “the House of Peoples’ Representatives shall be elected for a term of five years. Elections for a new House shall be concluded one month prior to the expiring of the House’s term”. Therefore, the mandate of the current Parliament will end in September 2020.One of the ongoing debates relating to the 2020 General Election is whether to delay/postpone the election or hold it as required by the Constitution and the electoral laws of Ethiopia. Those who argue for the delay of the election say the remaining one and half year is not enough 1) for the opposition parties to reach out to the people, 2) to reform NEBE and electoral laws, 3) to change the ethnic and identity based political opinion in Ethiopia, 4) to resettle the internally displaced peoples, and 5) to make the country peaceful where the fair and free election shall be held. They argue that the measurement for the legitimacy of a government is the support it has from the people, not its fulfillment of Constitutional or other legal requirements. They say, Ethiopian Constitution has been violated before and delaying the election in violation of what has been stipulated in the Constitution may not be abnormal for Ethiopians. They consider the current Constitution as a source of all problems and violating it until it will be changed may be the solution to some of these problems (ESAT Eletawi Fri 23 Nov 2018). On the other hand, those who support the holding of the General Election as scheduled and required by law argue 1) holding regular election is one of the benchmarks of democracy and the election should be held at a regular time, 2) the perfect time never comes and all parties must work towards meeting the 2020 target for General Election, 3) violation of the Constitution and other laws leads to problems not to solutions, 4) the current government has no legitimacy to govern the country beyond September 2020.If the Ethiopian Government decides to delay the General Election, the country will join the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where the General Election which was originally scheduled for November 27, 2016 was first postponed to December 2017 and then to December 23, 2018 and where the second and final term of President Joseph Kabila was expired on December 20, 2016, but he ruled the country for two years without constitutional mandate.
  1. Electoral System: Electoral system is “the formula by which votes are aggregated in a democracy to determine the winners and losers of seats in an assembly or office holding” (Elections, Electoral Systems and Party Systems). It is a set of rules on how elections are conducted and how their results are determined. Electoral system may vary from country to country, but there are three main electoral systems: 1) Majority System where the winner takes all; 2) Proportional Representation System where parties are represented proportionally in the legislature, and 3) Mixed Electoral System that combines characteristics of Majority System with element of Proportional Representation System.As stated under Article 25 of Proclamation No. 532/2007, the Electoral System of Ethiopia is a Majority System where “a candidate who received more votes than other candidates within a constituency shall be declared the winner”. The debates are going on to change the electoral law of Ethiopia from Majority vote to Proportional or Mixed system. The main point is that there is no perfect electoral system and there are always trade-offs. To conclude, the 2020 General Election and future elections determine what kind of government Ethiopia should have and where she will head. The current pull and push politics and the attempt to undo everything that has been done in the country for the last 27 years may not help the country to progress forward. Building upon the positive gains, gently and wisely straightening the wrongs, having tolerance and respect to the groups and individuals who have different culture and political opinion from what we have are necessary. In this twenty first century, it is not that difficult to know or speculate what the other group is planning to do and the effect of that move on the others. Therefore, the decisiveness of only one group in a multi-ethnic group country like Ethiopia should end and inclusive politics must start. The electoral system and operation must support such inclusiveness rather than imposition of the will of one group over the others.