Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Elections in the Past and Present Ethiopia
Nowadays, E-Democracy activists are promoting the idea of using of the Internet in elections as the best means that guarantees free, fair and democratic elections. The electoral system that has prevailed since the age of steam engine, so one of the activists wrote once, should give way to the new age of the Internet. Regardless of what the group says, there is no doubt that democracy is a process whose progress comes through time. The present level of democracy anywhere in the democratic world is the outcome of that long process before it reached its present shape and size. Even robust democracies in the world reached on their present level after having gone through that long process of transformation. As the saying goes, Rome was not built in an overnight.
When we consider the present stage of democracy in Ethiopia compared to what it had in the past, the difference is so gigantic that the comparison appears to be as meaningless. Modern history shows that elections in Ethiopia have relatively old history. It was started at the time of the monarchy nearly a century ago. In spite of its old age, as the very the term was used by the king and his allies, the people had no chance to take part in those elections to elect leave alone be elected. In short, public participation in the so-called elections of that distant past or even a couple of decades ago was as difficult as to be the king or the ruler of the time. At the initial stage of the term’s introduction at the time of the monarchy, the king was the only person on the entire land entitled to elect. The ones who were entitled to be elected by the king were also a few individuals who were apparently his close allies. Under such a situation where the king was the law himself, the peoples of Ethiopia had never got a chance to elect those who would decide on their fate.
That was the case when the first parliament of the country was established in 1924 E.C. The candidates nominated and elected by the king himself to fill the parliamentary seats were a few landed gentries and aristocrats. There was also a sound reason provided by the constitution of 1923 E.C. whose article 32 dictated that the councilors were to be elected by land lords and aristocrats for a certain period of time till the Ethiopian peoples would manage to elect their own leaders directly. Thus, the peoples of Ethiopia had to wait patiently until they were proven by the king to have reached on the stage of maturity at least to elect their leaders, if at all not to be elected. Thus, the peoples of Ethiopia were deliberately sidelined from the politics of their own country.
Then came 1935 E.C., when a new change was said to have been introduced to the politics of Ethiopia. That time, the king stopped electing from the aristocrats and lords and instead let his local leaders to nominate and send councilors to their respective provinces where the best of the best five were filtered out and ultimately been sent to Addis Ababa to represent the provinces. Though that was certainly a major change as compared to the Emperor’s earlier practice, it was as meaningless in terms of the public involvement in deciding who should govern them or administer their affairs.
It was rather in 1949 E.C., the peoples of Ethiopia had a real chance of electing their own representatives for the first time in their history. That was possible due to the adoption of the amended constitution a year before. As results, in the elections of 1949E.C, a total of 3,784,226 voters were registered, out of which 2,542,608 casted their ballots for the first time in their history. The number of candidates then was 602 and the number of elected ultimately were 210. Among the criteria set for running candidacy was, however, ownership of certain amount of moveable or immoveable property. Anyway, a total of five elections had been carried out, i.e. one in every four years since 1949 E.C. until the monarchy was deposed of power in 1967E.C.
Then what we had was the Dergue. The military regime grabbed the state power from the king thanks to the mass revolt that toppled the monarchy. The military junta, which initially appeared to have supported the popular revolution in quest of democracy, had promised to create a better Ethiopia that would be governed by its own people. Thus, it quickly dissolved the former parliament and replaced it with its own assembly of councilors in Tikimt 1967. The assembly which was composed of representatives of army divisions and units was in a sense no better than parliaments of the monarchy and as it remained the highest governing body of the country till 1979E.C. all the peoples of Ethiopia had no role at all in electing their governors. In fact, the situation Ethiopians had at that time was as the saying goes, from the frying pan to the fire, activists of democracy were simply labeled as traitors and enemies of the people and the country and hence trucked down and executed in broad light massacres on the streets of cities and towns as black sheep to intimidate the rest of the society. The brutal and inhuman measures taken by the military were so intimidating that the public had to stop even using the term “politics” and concluded that it was as dangerous as naked active electric power that should not be approached at all. The unfriendly atmosphere that existed for politics then had led some Ethiopians to live in self- imposed exile while others took the bold initiative of joining democratic forces who were wagging an armed struggle against the military regime.
It was 13 years later that the military rule of the Dergue finally felt the necessity of adopting a constitution, which it did as the constitution of E.P.D.R. on Tir 24, 1979. In line with the constitution, a parliament named as Bherawi Shengo (National Assembly) was established in1979E.C. The 835- member assembly was organized at national, administrative and autonomous regional level while the term of the members was five year. Though the representation was said to have been made on the number of population and nationality, that was practically done through organizational system of the sole ruling party and pretty sure there was no legal system for the representation of nationalities.
The peoples’ representatives’ electoral proclamation number 23/1980E.C. issued on the basis of the constitution of 1979E.C. dictated that all citizens of the country would participate in the electoral process of the country regardless of nationality, sex, religion, profession, colour and others. No doubt, a legal provision like that would send some rays of hope among Ethiopians to participate in the political process of their own country. But no sooner had faded their optimism as the actual practice of the military rulers was diametrically opposite to what was written on the constitution. Candidates that were to represent the public had to necessarily be members of the sole party, the Ethiopian Workers Party. Even then the candidacies were not made on the interests of individuals; it was rather on the interest of the party. In fact, according to the provisions of the 1979 constitution, the only ones who were entitled to nominate candidates were members of EWP, public associations and military units. Since the latter two were necessarily the establishments of EWP and operational through its leadership, there was no doubt that the candidacy was ultimately made by the party. There were in fact some instances when individuals tried to pose as independent candidates in some towns but as often was the case, they used to withdraw their candidacy just before the voting day declaring that it would not be fair for them to compete with a certain comrade of the EWP.
While the opportunity that existed for the Ethiopian peoples to be elected was as such very difficult at the time of the military, so was the opportunity to elect their leaders. Most often party agents would stand by the sides of the ballot boxes and order voters to cast their ballots to whom the party liked most. In fact, electoral rights of the people were officially replaced by organizational system of the party on the ground that peoples are not yet efficient enough to decide who would benefit them most. No wonder, that organizational based electoral system was also hailed by the then socialist camp as exemplary to other countries, where the socialist system was just at its infancy.
While EWP was the sole source of candidacy and electoral executive body, the party was officially declared as the sole legal party operating in the country effectively shutting off any possibility for the existence of any political movement whether at individual or group level.
Thus, it was only after the demise of the brutal military dictatorship, the Ethiopian peoples have really managed to gain the real political freedom. That came into effect after EPRDF, the party now in power that spearheaded the armed struggle of the Ethiopian peoples controlled Addis Ababa in 1983 E.C. At initial step, the victorious party invited all the political parties and armed groups operating in and outside of Ethiopia to a round table dialogue to decide on the fate of Ethiopia’s future. The political parties, some of whom returned from exile, together adopted the same year the charter of the transitional period as a result of which the first involvement of the public in politics has come true.
The peoples of Ethiopia directly elected in Yekatit 1984 their local administrative committee whose main engagement was restoring peace and security mainly with disarmament of illegal weapons dispursed by the fleeing army of the Dergue. No wonder, that election was held officially with the count of raised hands public gatherings.
Then, in Ginbot 1984 were held elections of national, regional and district council members. The electoral officers who were to administer the electoral process then were representatives of various political parties operating in the country. The criterion for candidacy was signatures of 50 people for district council and 350 for regional council. After accomplishing the mission entrusted to it by the proclamation of the transitional period, the national electoral commission, expired and replaced by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia whose existence came in 1985 E.C.
Ever since its establishment, the board has realized the long-awaited chance of the peoples’ participating in politics. The first election it conducted was for the Constitutional Assembly in Ginbot 1986. That election was held on the basis of population number where 100,000 people were represented by an individual at the same time without disregarding minority groups with less number of populations. Since then, or 1987 E.C., the National Electoral Board has successfully undertaken three general elections while now it is finalizing preparations to launch the fourth one in the coming May.
The last three elections were generally speaking democratic that truly involved the peoples as candidates or voters. Among several democratic manifestations, all of the elections were made in secret balloting system. They were also organized in a manner that complaints made by stakeholders are dealt with transparent and fair resolving mechanism, which is democratic by its virtue. The participation of the peoples in monitoring the free, fair and democratic nature of the election was another manifestation of popular participation right from the polling station, where every activity in the electoral process, from voters registration to vote counting is strictly monitored and controlled by five independent public observers that are necessarily be elected by the respective residents of the polling station as independent and non-partisan to any of the contesting political parties.
The fact that political parties that have stakes in the elections play a key role in monitoring the whole process through their own representatives and verifying the validity of each step of the electoral process through the signature of their representatives also signify another feature of the democratic nature of the Ethiopian elections currently.
In spite of all that, an exceptional situation was encountered in 1997E.C. That was when some of the contesting parties complained that ballot counting was rigged and refused later to accept the decisions made by NEBE, which after investigating the complaints through the involvement of the complaining parties themselves, ordered and undertaken re-elections in some places.
In general, since the peoples of Ethiopia have overthrown the last dictatorship in 1983 E.C., have truly been enjoying democratic rights in unprecedented manner. And for sure, this did not come out of a mere chance. It was rather out of strong desire that the peoples of Ethiopia wanted to have. As they wrote it in their constitution, democracy should no more be a matter of option but survival as it was the core issue they had been fighting for almost a generation and paid enormous sacrifice to gain it. Thus, undertaking periodical elections in a manner they meet international standards have been the order of the day as the first and for most requirement of establishing democratic system. Sham elections that the country used to experience at the time of the monarchy and the military regime had served the peoples of Ethiopia nothing but war, poverty and backwardness. That was the thing of the past and unlikely to come again as the peoples themselves have written their aspirations in their constitution. That was the basic reason for avoiding any sham elections in the country. But that was not the only reason. The peoples of Ethiopia have practically demonstrated their intolerance to such elections at the time of the military. The aspiration of the peoples is free, fair, democratic, peaceful and legitimate elections because that is the sole means that ensures the age-old ambitions of nations, nationalities and peoples to administer their own affairs. It is only democratic elections that ensure also peace and security of the country; the one can ensure development as various alternative agendas and policies reach the public and enable the public to choose from and give its sovereign power to which they like most.