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Ethiopia: Free and Fair Election Practices vis-à-vis the International Election Law Practices

Ethiopia: Free and Fair Election Practices vis-à-vis the International Election Law Practices


Image result for zeray hailemariam abebeBy  Zeray Hailemariam  April 25, 2015

This Article attempts to give a bird eye view on the criteria for Free and Fair Elections in Ethiopia, considered from an international Law perspectives.


Democracy and free and fair elections are inseparable. It is commonly agreed point that the evolution of democracy globally has been gradual. Needless to say, since the creation of the concept of democracy, it has taken various up and down steps to reach where it is now. History clearly tells us that democracy was not thrived overnight in any country. Even the very few western countries considered to be standard model of democracy have passed many obstacles.

For example, the right of the mass to elect or be elected in elections was not ensured in USA and Europe until the 19th century. In the USA, women were allowed to elect and be elected in 1922 on words.  Some 30 years long struggle took for black Americans to guarantee the right to elect which happened to be in 1950s. Things were similar in UK too. The rights to elect of the middle bourgeoisies was legalized in 1867. Whereas, men were allowed to elect equally and women to have equal vote right had been secured in 1884 and 1930s respectively.

Expectedly though in different ways from the past development process of democracy, it would take some time in Ethiopia too.

What is free and fair elections?

Elections are now acknowledged to be the cornerstone of democracy. Without election, there cannot be democracy we can talk about, they are inseparable. Election and democracy are two sides of one coin. Thus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adapted in 1948, established that the election of representative institution is the basis for the democratic management of public affairs. The idea of democracy and the right of everyone to participate in the government of his/her country are clearly set out in article 21 of the 1948 UDHR. Thus, election is one of the core elements of human rights. However, scholars who conducted extensive researches on the subject underline that elections must be free and fair if they are to fulfill the requirements of democracy and must be satisfying the concerned community. The core parameters to recognize if elections are free and fair are when media accesses, independent electorate body, campaign and other rights of parties are secured constitutionally. Hence, objective realities on the ground are best to evaluate of free and fair elections, if any.

 International dimensions of free and fair elections vis-à-vis Ethiopia’s elections process

Ethiopia, a country with more than 3000 years long history as independent state had never had an elected government till 1991. The worst thing is that even the various leaders who ruled Ethiopia at different time were used to believe that democracy is a mistake.  For example, Emperor Haileslasse who ruled Ethiopia from 1931 to 1975s used to believe “democracy can be harmful, a mistake”.

Changes happen fast, however.  In 1991, following the demise of the military junta (Derg), EPRDF led government introduced and practiced the concept of democracy.  EPRDF heartily determined that elections are one of the basic elements of the democratic rights, where the will of the people is the determining one to establish a government. Any government who comes to power out of election is illegitimate. Hence, for the first time in history, Ethiopia has been practicing ‘one of the largest democratic exercises in the African continent’. Consistent with the international law of elections, the country has declared its commitment for democracy via establishing Ethiopian Electorate Board through the endorsement of the House of Peoples’ Representative (parliament) unlike other countries by the executive body, an independent body to conduct free and fair elections.

Hereafter, more than 95% voters out of the eligible citizen for election have been registered; an evident how the people are determined to decide their fate via secret ballot in the last four national elections. This number of voters of Ethiopia is much bigger than that of USA whose 40% voters got registered every election.

The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia clearly stipulates that:

Article 38 (1), the Constitution underlined that: "Every Ethiopian national [has the right] to   take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly and through freely chosen representatives".

As Ethiopia is signatory to various International Laws, that ‘Election shall allow expression of the will of the people’ is its core principle clearly set in its constitution. In line with the Ethiopian Constitutional principles, so far, it has conducted the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and the 4th National and Regional elections in 1995 and 2000, 2005, 2010 respectively. Since then, the people decided its fate through secret ballot boxes, thus the idea of ‘the will of the people’ has became practical. The 1st, 2nd elections though were conducted in the basis of free and fair elections where weak opposition parties participated making it less exposed to the international community. It was for this reason that the world did not say much about Ethiopia’s election. It was because of that Ethiopians were unfamiliar with such elections that led to comparatively passive competition among the various political parties. Arguably, the international criteria for free and fair elections consistent with Ethiopian realities were applied fairly.

However, the 3rd National election conducted in may 2005 attracted the attention of the entire Ethiopian community to take part actively as the awareness of the importance of deciding one’s fate through secret ballot was rising. And, the contesting political parties were relatively better organized and ready to vigorously participate still without providing clear political alternatives to the people.

On the basis of the constitution of the EFDR consistent with the International Election Law, the contesting parties were accessed with media coverage, rally rights, debating time, electoral campaign rights, and other basic enabling elements of conducting elections on equitable basis.

As the Carter Center stated in its report entitled "Observing the 2005 Ethiopia National Elections":

"There were more open debates, including a long series of widely-discussed   live televised debates. Opposition parties benefited from guaranteed access to the state-owned electronic media. Candidates campaigned widely and effectively”.

To be fair, the legal opposition political parties were offered all the basic rights of elections which they used them effectively to tell their presence. But, abusing these rights, few opposing blocks attempted to trigger violent and hate statements which led post election crisis. They attempted lawlessly means of ousting the elected government. Instead of becoming part of the democracy process, they clearly appeared to be on the contrary. This was a strange for many Ethiopians who aspired for a better democracy anyway.

At the request of the government of a sovereign state, the UN may undertake verification; still the electoral process is managed by a national electorate board. The 1992 and 1993 resolutions were both adapted without a controversy vote, each recognizing that the fundamental responsibility for ensuring free and fair elections lies with governments. Consistent with the international practice, the Ethiopian government thus, invited various international election observer teams, one of whom was the Carter Center, EU, AU etc though their observing and reporting style, intentionally or not, was somewhat different.

Particularly, the EU election observing team leader, Ana Gomez, was acting in behalf of the contesting political parties which triggered the ruling party leaders to lose confidence on EU’s impartiality. The late Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi claimed it was far from her (refereeing Ms Ana) mandate to issue a statement declaring winners and losers. “Her mandate was to observe and report back, that is it”. EPRDF claimed that the EU became part of the problem rather than the solution referring the post Election violence occurred mainly in the capital, Addis.

The blanket denial of the contesting parties are laughable sometimes that they claim votes are rigged even in the consistency where they entirely won. For example they accused the EPRDF of rigging the vote in the capital before the announcement of the electorate board.  Later, however, the board declared the oppositions won completely landscape in the capital where they complained of rigging occurred. Hence, there were not core principles reportedly twisted by any party. All sources of the complain coming from the defeated parties were subjective and mainly to cover up their defeat.

Ethiopia is under massive preparation to conduct the fifth national election scheduled in May 21, 2015. More than 55 contesting political parties are registered and are seen in Medias presenting their agenda and introducing to the people. Election campaigning and other means of election process are being conducted openly. Code of conduct of parties is ratified by parliament so that all parties must be guided equally. Such approach is acceptable internationally where it can manage election process and parties differences equally. Such practices worked well in Cambodia and other countries.  Close to 35 million (95% eligible citizen took card) voters are registered.

Ethiopia has managed to apply almost all international measurements of democracy and free and fair elections principles and has been practicing them fairly. The best way to justify if one was free and fair election was not only using the principles on proper but how they were applied well on ground objectively. Thus, there are various cultural and political landscape and previous election experiences which can vary from country to country. Ethiopia is obviously new practitioner and much desired things are left. But to be sure, the country is on the right track in this regard.

Concluding remarks

Well Researched facts tell that the practice of elections did not come easily to reach where it has reached. There were ups and downs anyway. Taking the varying elements of elections (depending on the circumstances of the culture, experiences and other realities of the countries), Elections have never been perfect but comparatively free and fair. Elections were conducted not on the basis of equality. Blacks, for example, were denied voting rights until recently even in the so called developed nations. In UK, for example, women were not treated equally with boy until 1928. In Switzerland women went on waiting for the vote until 1991. These shows democracy and elections are a matter of process.

1991 was the time Ethiopia begun Electorate practice for the first time in history. The EFDR constitution gives absolute equal rights for every citizen, unless disqualified by law, to elect and to be elected without any sorts of discrimination on the basis of religious, race, color, gender or whatsoever. Though, the country is home for 94 million people with close to 80 various ethnic groups who speak about 80 different languages and with many major religions and cultural diversities, report of racial or religious or gender discrimination during the process of elections is unheard of. What is required is just to be able to manage election process according to the set law.

Ethiopia has started realizing a full-fledged democracy from the scratch. Though late, these make Ethiopian election system unique, to say the least.

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