Ethiopia passes new laws ahead of 2020 elections

By Morris Kiruga

Posted on Thursday, 29 August 2019 19:09
Ethiopia, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and president Sahle-Work Zewde, is heading for elections in 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Ethiopia’s parliament passed a new election law on Saturday 24 August ahead of the May 2020 national elections. It has raised some controversy, due in part to the lack of opposition consultation.

The law, passed unanimously, amended 149 articles, including the name of the law, which is now the “Ethiopian Election, Political Parties Registration and Election Ethics.” It merges three separate statutes that previously legislated the election procedure, party rules and registration processes.

  • Among the changes that have triggered controversy is a ban on public servants standing for election. Public servants who run will need to resign first, albeit temporarily. If they lose and are reinstated, they will not be eligible for salaries or benefits for the electoral period.
  • Another point of controversy is the changes to the number of signatures needed to form a party. The new law requires 10,000 signatures to start a national party, up from just 1,500, and 4,000 signatures for a regional party, up from 750.
  • One of the amendments that failed was a proposal to give priority to female candidates if they got an equal number of votes with male opponents in an election.

Fifty-seven opposition parties said their proposals were ignored by parliament, whose current members are all from the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

  • “We had suggestions which were not included in the final bill, for example, we are strongly opposed to the provision that civil servants must vacate their jobs if they are going to run for office,” Desalegn Chane, head of the opposition National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), told Reuters.
  • Geressu Gessa, chair of the Oromo Liberation Front, speaking on behalf of a group of opposition parties, told reporters, “The government should stop its approach of non-inclusiveness and…call a discussion with us.”

But not all opposition parties had a problem with the new laws. Natnael Feleke, head of communication at the Ethiopian Citizens and Social Justice Party (ECSJ), told The Reporter, before the law was tabled, his party accepts the majority of the provisions of the draft, even though not fully perfect.

The new laws will also affect the Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa city council elections, which were postponed last month, and will now take place at the same time as the national elections next year.

Putting stronger legal structures in place

As Ethiopia prepares for a busy next 14 months – which includes a referendum, national elections and a census – the government wants to get better legal structures in place. The motivation for the electoral changes, beyond reforming the country’s flawed election system, is to strengthen political parties.

  • The ruling coalition has been preparing to merge into a single national party, which would put it on a better footing to expand its influence beyond that of its four constituent regional parties.
  • Several other opposition parties have also merged to create bigger political platforms, such as the ECSJ, which was formed after the amalgamation of seven smaller parties.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reforms have resulted in the growth of political parties, as groups formerly listed as terrorist organisations transform into bigger political platforms. In the span of a just a few months in early 2019, 27 new parties were formed, bringing the total tally by March to 107.

  • Without the legal basis to form stronger parties, this number would have kept growing ahead of the elections, presenting not just logistical but also security challenges.

While the ban on serving public servants participating in elections is a positive step, the government will need to ensure that certain aspects of the provision, such as continuity and caveats, are understood ahead of the elections.

The bottom line: With the new electoral law in place, Ethiopia will now focus on the political, logistical, social and security challenges of its upcoming national votes and census.

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