Monday, May 24, 2010

Wait and See on Ethiopian Election

Now that Ethiopia has held its 4th national elections since the removal of the Marxist Dergue government in 1991, Ethiopians and the international community must wait as long as June 21st to see confirmed results. There has been much made of the relative calm of the pre-election period (more on that shortly), but it must be recalled that the violence last time took place after the election, was provoked by a questionable release of election results and was spurred by government troops who killed nearly 200 election protesters.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is predicting a win for himself and his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party. However, he also predicted a clear win in the last elections in 2005, and the surprisingly strong showing by opposition parties led to a delay in the announcement of results and suspicion of vote rigging by the government. All is quiet now, but if a similar result occurs when the results are announced next month, there could be further unrest.

Of course, some observers think the electorate expects there to be vote rigging and probably feels that protests are futile. Perhaps, but the voters also may be disappointed in an opposition that has fallen apart since its strong showing in 2005 after the jailing of opposition leaders and other factors causing previous parties to realign. There are three new opposition electoral coalitions in 2010: the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Forum (also known as “Medrek”), the All Ethiopian Unity Organization and the Ethiopian Democratic Party. Birtukan Mideksa, leader of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party remains in jail.

Mideksa isn’t the only opposition party official who was jailed – just the most notable one. While the international focus has been on restrictions on media coverage of the election and on the ability of foreign embassies to observe the voting, there have been reports of government harassment and abuse of opposition parties. The All Ethiopian Unity Party reported that its candidates and supporters were beaten, arrested and prevented from voting in their constituencies in eastern and western Ethiopia.

Human Rights Watch also accused the government and EPRDF of harassing voters and using “repressive legal and administrative measures that the Ethiopian ruling party used to restrict freedom of expression during the election campaign.” According to the human rights organization, local government officials went house to house to intimidate citizens into registering to vote and casting their ballots for EPRDF. They reportedly were threatened with losing their homes or jobs if they failed to follow through.

The international community, including the United States government, finds itself in a difficult position. Human rights reports, such as the annual one released by the U.S. Department of State, consistently show government and ruling party efforts to disrupt the political opposition – to the extent of beatings and jailing of opposition officials, candidates and supporters. Nevertheless, criticism of the Ethiopian government and ruling party never produce strong action because of the alliance of the West with Ethiopia across a number of situations critical to global security.

Ethiopia is a major contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations (the fifth largest African contributor and the 12th largest contributor overall). Ethiopian peacekeepers have been present in the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), the AU/UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMDI), the UN Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT), the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI). Moreover, Ethiopian intervention in Somalia is seen as a means of bolstering the Transitional Federal Government there without necessitating the presence of Western troops. Furthermore, Ethiopia has gained at least tacit support from the international community in its ongoing border dispute with Eritrea.

Most Western aid to Ethiopia bypasses the government or funds peacekeeping or other vital operations the international community is not interested in seeing ended. Consequently, the United States and other Western countries feel hard-pressed to force electoral or human rights reforms by the Addis Ababa government. Still, repression can only continue for so long without an explosion of some kind. The violence in 2005 was mostly on the part of Ethiopian security forces, but what if Islamist extremists or Eritrea begins to recruit and support Ethiopian militants to overthrow the government?

The Prime Minister already has accused ethnic Somalis in the east and Oromos in the south of being supported by outsiders interested in a violent change of government. Rather than mutely support the Ethiopian government, the West would be better served by using all means of helping Ethiopia move past its current handling of elections and human rights before it is too late.

There are three phases to elections: a pre-election period in which the environment is made either fair of skewed toward the ruling party, the election day voting and handling of ballots and election materials and treatment of voters and the post-election vote counting and release of results. Before we issue that sigh of relief over having dodged a bullet as regards electoral violence in Ethiopia, let’s see what the election results bring this time.

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