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A T H U N D E R O U S V O I C EOFA U N I F E D C H O I S E

A††† T H U N D E R O U S†† V O I C E

OF

AU N I F I E D†† C H O I S E

 

Genenew Assefa

Alas, the people have spoken, and spoken in a resounding voice, perhaps portending for better or worse, a similar pattern of vote tally for several elections to come. In any event, whatever ramification the future may have in store, one thing can be said with certainty in relation to the May 24 voting. If nothing else, the record-high voter-turnout and consummate civility with which citizens exercised their right to vote in a multiparty election merits celebration, though the outcome neither warrants pomp nor vainglory. To the contrary, the sheer disproportionateness of the vote-count calls for sober reflection free from airs of vanity, lest success breeds self-limiting complacency. If not, resistance to internal renewal at the risk of terminal detachment from the social forces of change and the pioneering conscious agents of transformation.

However, modesty at a moment of arresting feat of electoral sweep only adds respectability in the eyes of the Ethiopian people known to respect unassuming acceptance of awards of merit as they are reputed for their silent scorn of showy exhibition of success. Most informed Ethiopians in fact recall, often with sardonic irony, how even a fleeting moment of fame inflated the arrogance of the few who rose and fell from the commanding height of authority, passing on to the next in line their unbridled contempt for the powerless many. Humility in the wake of triumph, on the other hand, yields greater public trust, credibility and voters' confidence, the crucial ingredients of an effective election campaign strategy. Witness how trust built over successive periods of tenure in office lent credibility to the incumbent's campaign promise of five more years of continuous forward thrust beyond the next phase of growth and transformation.

Although impressive, the massive vote of confidence vested on the elected party is not, in figure of speech, a blank check. Nor license, as it were, to revel in smug complacency in the face of lingering issues that cry out for prompt remedy. Indeed it is a sign of modesty to measure the landslide victory as a time-bound mandate subject to repeal should hubris rear its head, as it often does, in times of spectacular victory. A potent antidote against potential relapse to conceited uppity is again humble recognition that the plebiscite as no more than a conditional consent, predicated on a paired set of popular expectations. Each a testament, as it were, to the crosscutting popular allegiance to the federal democratic order wherein the diverse peoples of Ethiopia live in mutual respect and harmony. From this self-evident truism, it is only a small step to quickly deduce that voters expect the ruling party to, more than ever, uphold, protect and defend the hard-won federation. With renewed commitment no less, backed by credible political will to fulfill the constitutional promises of civil liberties, gender equality and greater parity among nations and nationalities. For it is decidedly the protection of these fundamental rights which sustains the enduring peace, political stability and the progressthe country is making in the fight against deep-seated misery ---the ultimate determinate of state instability.

In this connection, it is useful to note the coincidence of the timing of the May 24 election and the violent conflagration in the near-abroad. Countries torn asunder by sectarian violence, sparing no-one not least vulnerable Ethiopian residents and immigrants alike, caught in the furnace of warring factions of burning lands. Peace and stability, therefore, must have weighed heavily on voters' minds as the Election Day approached whilst violence raged within the orbit of Ethiopia's regional horizon. Surely in the meantime voters must have attentively followed the election debate to determine which of the competing parties deserve their voice, particularly from the vantage point of their most concern. Apparently voters were swayed by the party that in their eyes has the right policy mix to sustain and augment the country's peace dividend. This is understandable as countless many have come to savor the country hard won peace, mindful of the implications of the absence of political stability. Casual post-ballot public conversationattest to the weight given tostability as abig factor of choicein the 2015 election, particularly to first generation voters in Ethiopia's multiparty elections. Arguably, relative to the population born after the 1990s or those who reached the legal voting-age thereafter, stability may well have been the tipping point of the vote for older citizens.Citizens, that is, old enough to recall the perils that this country endured during the terrible years of bloodletting amid criminal abandonment of rule of law. Such iscertainly the frightening memory the defunct totalitarian system leftbehind, particularly on elderly women who bore the brunt of the social and emotional burden of the near-two- decades of genocidalreign ofterror. As it happens, like those who lived through Ethiopia's nightmarish years, the younger voting generationis no less unnerved by the ordeals that women and children are going through in outlaying countries sucked into the vortex of incarnating violence. Both voting generations of Ethiopian citizens admit that concerns of safety and security loomed large in their thoughts as the polling day, May 24 approached. Vote indeed they did in numbers to boot, to the party that struck them most fit to govern and most equipped to safeguard the country's long spell of peace and stability.

However, by far the most important factor why voters pinned their hopes on†† the incumbent has to do with EPRDF's proven track record of living up to the promises of equal distribution of the increasing gains of Ethiopia's right-based development strategic policies. This much can be inferred from a quick disaggregation of the massive vote cast to the EPRDF by income category. This to say that any social breakdown of the aggregate vote is certain to reveal that low-income rural and urban voterstake to heart the party's pledge to stamp out poverty as the last but penetrable redoubt of thenation's worst enemy.Indeed never before the advent of the EPRDF has any government ever defined the national interest of Ethiopia as nothing other than the interest of the people, nor has any state ever identified poverty as the country's erstwhile enemy with which no compromise is possible.Admittedly placing emphasis on the enemy ††within may well serve as the first line of defense against any adversary. But taking the war to the enemy's stronghold i.e., rural Ethiopia and the urban slums of the country is a daring feat which sealed an unbreakable bond between the poor and the EPRDF. Undoubtedly lifting millions of paupers out of misery in a short time-span of barely fifteen years or so deserves applause. Even more praiseworthy is execution of 12 successive annual double-digit growth rates by a non-Tiger political model. Herein, lays the positive aspect of the secret behind EPRDF's landslide victory in arguably the best organized multiparty electionto date.

The negative aspect of the factor, so to speak, which accounts for EPRDF's ballot sweep in two consecutive elections, is equally telling as it is instructive. If nothing less, the preceding and present election outcomes reflect mass rejection of hate politics and extremism as a threat to the nationality- based constitutional democratic order. Without which, needless to say, the fast track transformative change taking place across every regional state of the Ethiopian federation could not have been possible.This is borne outbythe unity ofchoice expressed inthe May 24 vote which, among other things, stands assignal of voters' disavowal of hatemongering and bigotry of both the chauvinistic and narrow-minded strand.

Sadly, however, these mutually exclusive, but equally anti-democratic inclinations were occasionally visible in the campaign activities of at least a few of among the fifty-two opposition parties that run for the House of Peoples' Representatives. Nonetheless, though some parties exhibited these dangerous tendencies, none were excluded from generous state grants of campaign financing, equitable allocation of public media space plus time slots for campaigning and political advertisement. Side by side with these positive measures, repeated calls were made on the public to guard the election process against any form of unlawful behavior.This has certainly paid off since weeks have lapsed since the voting day and the announcement of the provisional result without any sign of vote-related flare-ups in the air. Not, as it were, for any lack of desire on the part of at least certain parties prone to view elections as an occasion to flex their political muscle at the expenses public order. But none of these parties could successfully reenact the 2005 post-election subterfuge so long as the people remain vigilant against deliberate instigation of disorder under any pretext. All in all, the fact that the vote was held in orderly fashion with no hiccup so far is an indication that much thought has gone into the preparation of the 2015 vote per the constitutional imperative of conducting periodic faire and free multiparty elections.

However, pundits prone to judge African elections by preconceived outcomes, rather than by the integrity of the process, have already started second-guessing voters' motive for throwing their lot with the EPRDF. Typically, the so-called impartial election experts would have the world reject the 2015 vote as fraught with innumerable hitches, including human rights violation, suppression of reporters/bloggers and denial of access to multiple external election observers. It is the sum of these deliberately constructed impediments, then, according to the experts, which massively tilted the playing field of the May 24 balloting in favor of the incumbent.The upshot, we are told, could only have been yet another travesty of democratic election.

Hence, despite their far-remove from the actual scene, the experts insist that on their testimonies alone the world ought to denounce the 2015 election as a rigged outcome. This call for denunciation of the fifth-round multiparty Ethiopian election on insupportable ground to boot can only be intended to simulate a scenario for a regime change. By means, no doubt, similar to the series of color-coded revolutions that undid many an elected government in Eastern Europe. In this connection, the case of Ukraine, Georgia etc, is a clear enough warning that grave consequence follow in the wake of a negative US/EU verdict on any election, particularly in emerging democracies of the South.A vivid illustration of the frightening consequences of such a conspiracy has recently come to light, thanks to Borzyskowski's 2010 rigorous case study of several countries, including Ethiopia. His finding shows that ''International condemnation can spur violence by shifting the loserís incentives to fight: the condemnation ... serves as a focal point for mobilization.''

No wonder the Ethiopian public is leery of such mobilization as it conjures up memories of the 2005 post-election violent disorder. Fortunately the wind was quickly taken out of the 2005 explosive flare-ups by the combined force of the state and the vigilant public. Besides, the outcome of the 2015 election itself is a clear indicator that the public dreads disorder most, regardless of whatever grievance may be cited as the underplaying casual factor. Recall, if you will, how the general public recoiled in horror at the organized disturbance timed to coincide with the recent mass rally held to denounce the beheading of Ethiopian refuges at the hands ISIS terrorists in Tripoli.††† †††††

In any event, much can be said in refutation of the negative commentaries on the 2015 election which only emboldens sour losers to challenge the result in the streets. But for brevity's sake, suffices to raise a few piercing questions only to show that none of these commentaries, summarized above in three main groups, holds water. For starters, leaving aside the timing, one must ask what bearing could the detention of one reporter and a few bloggers possibly have on the outcome or the process of the 2015 vote?Indeed the claim begs question in light of an election where contending parties freely transmitted their views through public radio, television and print media? Surely no-one could have better framed the message that opposition parties conveyed to the voting public than their own communication experts.Granted, as it turned out, voters were unimpressed by the contents of message they heard from the horse's mouth, so to speak, as none of it spoke to their real concerns. Voter disinterest in what the opposition parties have to say could not be newsflash, considering that none spoke to the issues pertinent to the electorate. It is, therefore, safe to say that the outcome of the vote would not have any different even if the said reporter and bloggers were free to campaign on behalf of any of the opposition parties they might have fancied fit to replace the incumbent.Admittedly, one could question the evidence of the charges brought against the bloggers and the one reporter held in custody months before the 2015 election. But no review of the case that led to their disbarment from public life can yield explanation why the overwhelming number of voters chose the EEPRDF over the opposition parties. Contention to the contrary, to put it mildly, is ludicrous --- full stop! As neither the language nor the content of what freelance reporters and social-media activists choose to post bear any resonance with the interest of the mainstream voting population. A glance at their social media output is enough to conclude that they are uninterested in rational argument and balanced criticism just as they care less about constructive engagement. Most in fact disseminate visceral hate, though these bloggers are unanimous in†† condemning the EPRDF as an enemy of the free press.There is an Orwellian twist to this condemnation coming from those entrenched in venomous vitriolic, poisonous rhetoric interspersed with calls for the violent overthrow of the duly constituted federal republic.

Les us now turn to the question of external election observers, the lack of which, the critics argue, implicates the state in vote fraud. Yet, given the competence level of theNational Election Board at this stage, how many times, or how many varieties of external observers must thiscountry invite to validate its electoral process?How many times, for instance, had external observers monitor elections in Portugal, one of the last European countries to embrace democracy?Maybe once or perhaps twice at most? Whereas in the opinion of experts of Ana Gomeze's caliber, it seems that, unlike Portugal, Ethiopia lacks what it takes to be trusted with its own elections without the praying eye of external observers. Not, mind you, any external observer, but of specific origin deemed to have privileged access into the opaque goings on of an African election. Apparently, from the blinkered point of view of Eurocentric election experts and their local Uncle Toms, the opinion of the AU election observation team weighs far less than the pronouncements of its EU counterpart on matters of African elections. Demeaning stereotype aside, it pays to recall that none of the previous election reports released by an AU election observation team has fallen short of international norms and protocols of ballot monitoring. Nor can one expect anything different from the final write-up of the 2015 Ethiopian elections soon to be released by†† the AU election observation team.

This brings us to the issue of human rights violation in relation to the 2015 election, which in the eyes of some critics accounts for what they deem as another fraudulent election result. Yet this strident conclusion too flies in the face of the broad landscape in which the election bout played itself out, albeit to a staggeringly lopsided end-result. Obviously on this score alone, critics argue that the outcome of the election reflects not the accurate choice of voters' but the asymmetry of the election terrain. Contrarily, however, discounting the usual sour losers, many opposition parties have issued post-election statements, admitting that the election arena neither favored nor disfavored any of the competing parties.Each of these parties testified ††that the stage was wide open, allowing for any party so inclined to freely stage demonstrations, hold public rallies, organize indoor mass gatherings etc., with no impediment. No wonder there is any credible report of claims of obstruction, at least, not which amounts to grave human rights violation. This might come as a news flash to armchair critics,but there is a consensually designed redress mechanism to even lesser election-related grievance thanhuman right abuse: A grave crime in this country which, election or not, carries severe punishment.Yes, there is a lot to be desired in the level of state protection of human rights in Ethiopia. But it takes a leap of faith to credit the contention that lack of robust human rights protection has a lot to do with the sorry showing of the opposition parties at the ††2015 elections.†††

More seriously, it is difficult to even imaginehow under conditions of systemic human rights abuse thirty-six million people could bother toregister to vote in a countrywherevoting is not compulsory. More puzzling is how the bulk out of the thirty-million of the registered thirty-six million voters could go through the trouble of standing in line only to cast ballot to the very party which callously trample underfoot their inalienable human rights. Again, how, it must be asked,in full view of foreign reports could millions of people be gang-pressed behind a polling facility only to be dragged one by one into a ballot booth with stern instruction to secretly cast ballot to a repressive party? No doubt, the lopsidedness of the outcome of fifth-round national election is difficult to square with the standard deviation of vote tally in most multiparty electioneering. Yet any quick survey of voter-opinion at random electoral districts readily bears out the official ballot count of this years' election. Ask, if you must, as one foreign journalist did, a fairly representative number of voters in Addis Ababa, whether the vote tally posted at their Kebele office door is accurate or not?Their response without doubt is bound to be, ''Yes, this is how we voted.'' The burden of proof to the contrary, therefore, lies with those who claim otherwise based on what conjunctures derived from mere statistical probability tells them without doing the empirical leg work. Statistical probability is no doubt a useful modeling device of pre-election predictions. But what is to be done if - ceteris paribus- the actual outcome radically veers from the projected most probable configuration of ballot distribution? Is the outcome to be rejected on grounds of discrepancy with established statistical truth? Or is it to be accepted as genuine result, albeit as the odd exception that nonetheless proves the rule? In any event, though by no means a perfect analogy, we can all agree that a man who, against all probability, hits a jackpot twice in a row cannot be denied his cash award just because theoddssuggests a high probability thathe may have of rigged the draw in his favor.By the same token there is no basis (not at least on close examination) to controvert or to cast doubt on the authenticity of the 2015 election outcome on a priori assumption informed exclusively by statistical probability, which if uncritically pursued to the end, could even suggest a high possibility of foul-play. Yet, by any ratiocination, inducting foul-play from the election result is unattainable, regardless of how the margin, from the perspective of standard deviation, may sound implausible. Hence, since the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, any insinuative speculation of vote tampering amounts to less than nothing unless backed by empirically- grounded evidence or irrefutable proof. Predictably, unable to meet these rigorous criteria of validity of claim-making, Human Rights Watch at least reckons that the next best thing to do is to categorically dismiss the 2015 ballot count as an outcome of uninformed voting.

Granted, voters may have been at a loss to choose from any of the contending parties as none offered any alternative policy option. But in all fairness, it is hard to blamethe opposition parties, considering that they are up against an incumbent with an unmatchable record of human development index generated on the back a twelve-year running double-digit growth. Needless to say, much to the disadvantage of couch parties, this stellar achievement has become a virtual benchmark by which citizens measure political parties in times of elections. The current election outcome is perhaps the clearest gauge by what standards the voting population measure competing parties any why they turned out in great numbers, as they did on May 24, to let the world know their choice of preference.However, judging elections by a single variable, say, by the range of competing policies of sizable constituencies, critics dismiss the May 24 voting as a predetermined election. Nay, the millions of electors voted the way they†† did to defend the gains they are making under the leadership of the EPRDF. ††And above all to remind the world that they stand with the party of Renaissance as none of the rival parties has what it takes to guide this country to the next stage of social, economic and cultural renewal.

Lest the people's choice is misconstrued as an outcome of blind faith or a function of cult-like worship of those in power, it is perhaps useful to review previous polling results. If only because polling results tells us what the public thinks of its elected leaders at a given point in time. For instance, a quick glance at, say, at the 2005 vote tally suffices to dispel the notion of a spellbound population which sheepishly cast vote to one party. Similarly,†† the 2010 elections reveal that neither blind-faith nor psychological conditioning had anything to do with EPRDF's landslide victory. Had that been case, it would have been reflected in the popular vote, where in Addis Ababa in particular, the incumbent won only by a tiny number of votes in almost all election districts.

However, it is often lost on many that it is the system of first-cross-the-post which accounts for EPRDF's almost total control of the 2010-2015 legislative chambers.Clearly, from the ballot-casting pattern, it is apparent that not all voters harbor illusions about EPRDF's flaws and shortcomings. If only marred by misleading claims and counterclaims, the 2005 election is a living reminder that most people are aware of EPRDF's difficulties and limitations, particularly in the crucial area of good-governance and uniform transparency in administrative decision-making. Not to mention the party's lackluster political will in terms of empowering the people in the struggle against rent-seeking, graft, patronage, soliciting cuts in bid awards, and kickback, especially from service- seekers with lingering fear of the state and state functionaries.

Yet none of these failings, which down the road is bound to militate against the democratization process, is lost on the governing party. What is lacking, so far at any rate, is sustained ameliorative intervention commensurate with the gravity of the malaise and the attendant ramification of needless public resentment. Be that as it may, with all EPRDF's drawbacks, the 2015 unified vote signifies firm nationwide confidence in the ability of the party leadership to dent and eventually overcome slacksthat needlessly cause public resentment.With hopefully robust popular participation every step of the way until full rectification of these issues of public discontent is attained. In this connection, one cannot overemphasize the need for greater popular participation, particularly at the lower rungs of the administrative structure where decision-making and execution of policy directives affects the grassroots population most. That is why, nothing less is expected from a party which takes pride in its culture of self-criticism and self-correction than providing prompt solution to popular grievance, particularly at grassroots levels.

In parenthesis, there is a lesson that other parties could learn from EPRDF's experience of self-questioning which at once explains the party's internal renewal and capacity to anticipate and overcome new challenges.Not least of the lessons opposition parties could learn from the EPRDF is the need to focus on agendas that matter most to the overwhelming majority of the working population. Rather than clinging on to the same old know-nothing populism witch only commands a fleeting appeal to the critical- mass of the voting public. Neither the flipside of populism, the politics cascading bombastic ultimatums in inflammatory language to mach, has any purchase among the mainstream electorate. This too is unsurprising given that, through the cumulative experience of the last four national elections, the voting population has learned to differentiate between, on the one hand, empty posturing of no consequence, and on the other, a viable political program of fundamental change. Apparently it has not yet dawned on many opposition parties that flag-waving, crowed-pleasing and catering to the hate-preaching Diaspora community is a recipe for poor showing at the polls.At least one would like to hope that the 2015 election would serve as a reminder that grandstanding is a futile, if not, an unappealing exercise, for which the public has no appetite much less sympathy. Likewise, henceforth it ought to be obvious that inflating every transient difficulty as a manifestation of systemic crisis of state legitimacy is a myopic strategy. One which as often backfires no sooner than the problem which is addressed and focus shifts, and shiftas it must, constantlyto meet newer challenges thatrapid developmentthrows at the path of an emerging state on the throes of transformation. Yet the opposition, both abroad and at home, mindlessly blows out of proportion every hiccup in this country as most are clueless of the nature of the problem.Yes, challenges inevitably trail a country in an upward development trajectory, but each challenge bears within its crust the clue to its solution so long as there is no irreversible slack in the momentum of the rapid change in the country in question.Whereas, problems that arise in a state frozen in time can potentially unravel the system and unhinge the pillars of the political arrangement. It is mostly confusion of these binary scenarios why the opposition has been banking on the self-fluffing prophesy of EPRDF's imminent collapse, instead of framing a realistic program†† ††tempered by awareness of the limits of the possible.No wonder that every time the opposition ††ends-up pushing even undecided swing-voters to go with the incumbent which, as it is, appears unbeatable in the foreseeable future elections.

In a similar vein, the EPRDF will do well to recognize that its landslide victory comes with a huge burden of responsibility no less heavy than the senior leadership shouldered during the difficult prehistory of the founding of the federal republic. This is perhaps why,in what could be taken as an election-result acceptance speech, the EPRDF chairman made no secret of the†† arduousness of task to be accomplished if the governing party is to live up to the rising expectations of the Ethiopian people. And, in the same forthright manner of his predecessor, the chairman candidly spoke to the problematic issue of good governance and public service delivery, the Achilles heel of the party. But in the best tradition of the founders of the EPRDF, Chairman Hailemariam Dessalgn pledged his party's commitment to address the root cause of public discontent with rent-seeking, graft, abuse of power etc. Stressing in no uncertain language, as he did, that success on this front depends as muchonhis party's resolve as in the synergy of the combined efforts of all stakeholders, but above all on the active participation of the entire peoples of Ethiopia.

 


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