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Ethiopia: As election nears, parties seek unity of varying identities

By Loza Seleshie
Posted on Wednesday, 7 April 2021 15:37

Ethiopia Elections
A man casts his vote in Ethiopia's general election in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Sunday, May 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Mulugeata Ayene)

After being postponed twice, Ethiopia’s general elections will finally take place on 5 June. Indeed, since 2018, the country’s political transition has had its security and economic challenges further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. With 49 parties currently registered, the upcoming ballot promises to be highly decisive in shaping Ethiopia’s future.

Ethiopians will soon go to the polls to elect the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) and regional State Councils (SC) members. Being a federal parliamentary republic, there are two chambers: the HPR  and the House of Federation (HF). Members of the latter are to be elected by the SC or ‘may hold elections to have the representatives elected by the people directly’ (Article 61.3) .

While the SC has jurisdiction over regional state matters, the majority party (or coalition) in the HPR designates the prime minister.

Ahead of election day, who are the main decisive forces? Are there deep ideological differences within the current government? And what, if any, coalitions are possible?

Building amidst crisis

Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018 shifted many aspects of the political landscape: opposition groups returned from exile, political prisoners were freed and freedom of expression was allowed.

The government also gave institutional guarantees such as:

  • Reinstating the independence of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).
  • A former judge and leading opposition figure, Birtukan Mideksa, returned from exile in 2018 to serve as the head of NEBE.
  • Daniel Bekele, a lawyer and human rights activist jailed under the previous government, was also appointed to chair the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission in 2019.

While these decisions could reinforce the credibility of the electoral process, NEBE had also taken steps to establish clear frameworks, namely, the Ethiopian Electoral Political Parties Registration and Elections Code of Conduct Proclamation in 2019.

The new regulations “have had the effect of pushing out a large number of weak and fragmented political parties from the party system. Previously, there were more than 130 political parties many of which were weak and volatile,” writes Girmachew Alemu, associate professor of law at Addis Ababa University in an opinion piece. 

The NEBE has nevertheless faced some challenges. The decision to postpone elections due to Covid-19 was met with strong resistance from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Elections in Tigray were subsequently held without approval from the board, leading to Addis Ababa announcing an end to ties with the Tigray government, escalating soon after to armed conflict.

To date, the electoral calendar in Tigray is not yet clear. The ongoing conflict has inevitably sparked a change in the political structure of the country that is shifting.

Parties and coalitions

Of the 49 parties registered, 32 will be running for regional council seats, while 17 will compete for House of Representatives and the national elections. Among these national parties, liberalism is the prevailing economic stance.

In December 2019, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition under Abiy Ahmed merged into the Prosperity Party (PP). The TPLF, previously the coalition’s core party, refused to join for legal and ideological reasons. The PP, in a change from the EPRDF, put forward a liberal economic plan to ensure a greater role for the private sector.

Indeed, the PP’s ideals are liberal and seek a ‘unified multinational party’, perhaps a far cry from the EPRDF’s original vanguard rule and revolutionary ethnic federalism.

Other parties are taking a different approach when it comes to uniting varying identities.

“Democracy fundamentally is about policies […] If you put all the political groups [participating in the election] together, the ideas, the strategy, the tools are very similar. [..] It is not a competition over ideas, it is a competition over identity or character,” said Adem Abebe, a specialist in elections and constitutional governance, at the Rift Valley Forum.

The new opposition party, Enat, for example, has said it believes there is no single political and economic philosophy that fits Ethiopia.

Speaking to The Reporter, an Ethiopian newspaper,  Seife Sealssie Ayalew, the deputy president of Enat said: “Ethiopia is a country with plenty of history and rich culture, […] But, especially for the last 45 years, Western culture and philosophy has eroded Ethiopian identity as it has been imported without proper inspection; Enat party will restore real Ethiopian character.”

In addition to new faces, old ones are joining forces. The Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (ECSJ) is the largest opposition coalition led by formerly-exiled academic Berhanu Nega.

The members of the ECSJ were “in previous years, the leading opposition parties challenging the EPRDF ruling party,” said Teshome Borago, a political analyst and former opposition figure, in an opinion piece. This could work to the advantage of the ECSJ compared to the newer parties .

Balderas for True Democracy (BTD) and the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) have formed a coalition which they hope will give them an advantage in Addis Ababa. The coalition may also include the All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP).

As for the remaining 32 regional parties competing for SC seats, Alemu wrote that he remains optimistic that “political parties that have previously been marginalised in the regional states of Afar, Benishangul Gumuz, Harari, Gambela, and Somali are now part of the national political discourse”.

This of course raises the question on how to balance identity and policy.

(Im)possible coalitions

“Democracy fundamentally is about policies […] If you put all the political groups [participating in the election] together, the ideas, the strategy, the tools are very similar. [..] It is not a competition over ideas, it is a competition over identity or character,” said Adem Abebe, a specialist in elections and constitutional governance, at the Rift Valley Forum. He added: “As a country, in the last 30 years we have not invested in the commonality of challenge. […] What drives inter-ethnic conflict is intra-ethnic competition.”

An illustration of this has been the failed coalition between the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Nationalist Party (ONP).

The OLF leadership split in March, compromised an already fragile situation. The OLF’s alleged implication in killings, including the case of Hachalu Hundessa, has led to the imprisonment of its prominent figures such as Jawar Mohammed.

Following these events, the OLF and OFC will not be participating in the elections.

This inter-group dysfunction has also been mentioned by the Prosperity Party. “We need to calm and resolve differences through dialogue and minimising conflict,” said Abiy as quoted by the Addis Standard.

Bottom line

As 134,109 observers prepare to monitor elections and voter registration, the electoral campaign is coming into full swing.

Faced with healing past and present and on-going wounds, there is hope that the election “will be a turning point, given that it will give everyone the same opportunity at the ballot, irrespective of ethnic or religious community therefore allowing us to elect a legitimate government,” said Mesud Gebeyehu, Executive Director of the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organisations (CEHRO) in an interview with CIVICUS.

Legitimacy is perhaps the core demand.

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