The historical records of the ruling Revolutionary Democrats on elections are not as favourable as on development. Their over 23 years of power are rather identified with elections failing to meet global standards. A changing matrix of controversies remains to surround all of the elections of the past two decades.
As another election era dawns, the air is getting filled with yet another around of controversies over the very processes of the election. The latest controversies relate to the pre-election process. It all comes as voter registration started on Friday, January 09, 2014.
Disenfranchised by procedural flaws in the election of electors conducted in the past weeks, opposition political parties have started to discredit the whole process as remotely controlled by the ruling coalition that remained in power for over 23 years. They argue that the processes with which the electors were chosen are far from the ideal case depicted in the nation’s electoral laws. They accuse the National Electoral Board (NEB), an authority entrusted with the responsibility of organising and managing elections, for conducting the whole process in a way that serves the interests of the ruling EPRDF.
Nonetheless, the electoral board rejects the accusations as baseless. It argues that the whole process has been conducted according to the laws of the land.
This kind of tit-for-tat is not new to the political space. It instead is a typical feature of the space hosting considerable amount of rivalry, animosity and grudges. It even seems as if Ethiopian politics could not live without these elements.
Elections are relatively new activities for the nation that takes pride in its very old history of statehood. Up until late 1990s, power was obtained in the nation through the decisive role of destructively competitive wars or coups. Even the last regime, a military dictatorship that claims affiliation with the global socialist movement, was brought to power through a student-led revolution. It took not more than a year for it to transform into a full-fledged dictatorship.
It was after 17 years of struggle that the hope of democracy shined back on to the nation’s political space. This was related with the overthrow of the military dictatorship and the ratification of the nation’s first constitution.
With the historic change came elections as the only means of ascending to power. This not only empowered citizens to choose their government, but also changed the rule of the game. Competition for political power becomes the new order of the day.
This new order also established multiparty democracy as a guiding political framework in the nation that has for long been ruled by an omnipotent king or a despotic dictator. At practical level, therefore, political parties become the smallest units of the political theatre. And their ascendance to power becomes closely related to their ability to convince voters to preferentially favour them in ballots.
It is under this framework that the nation is preparing to undertake its fifth national and regional election. But, alike the four previous elections, this latest one is witnessing divergences in attitude, determination and approach between the ruling party and its opponents.
As if to indicate that the divergence is somewhat a permanent fixture of the nation’s political space, the ruling party and its over 80 opponents have started to throw accusations on one another. There is almost no consensus between them. Each step within the election process is becoming a cause for controversy.
The NEB’s latest rejection of claims from opposition political parties, does little in the form of helping the whole process be free, fair, transparent and legitimate. If anything, it puts weight on the long overdue claim of the opposition camp that it serves the interest of the ruling coalition. This was furthered by unequivocal affirmation of the process by the ruling party.
If anything, the latest controversy is a showcase that Ethiopian elections give less recognition to processes than results. Unlike the global experience, wherein processes are considered as definitive as results, the focus of Ethiopian elections is on the ends.
As the saying goes, though, the end defines the means. There could be no democratic election without democratic election processes. Be in the pre-election or post-election period, the structure and management of election processes is very important to define the legitimacy of the government to come to power in the end.
Of course, focusing on election results is not unique to the Ethiopian political space. It is true to polities with no strong political institutions, be it in Asia, Latin America or Africa.
Weak institutions, undeveloped democratic culture and societal divisions are favourable factors to a political culture that weighs results more than processes. In the Ethiopian case, this is furthered with the presence of over 80 political parties.
Yet, focusing on results is a reductionist attitude towards democratic elections. Truly democratic elections are identified with processes that are inclusive enough to entertain the concerns of all parties. Effective institutions (and processes) of conflict resolution are also parts of such elections.
As far as the latest controversy is concerned, though, it seems that this attitude is absent in the Ethiopian political space. The response of the electoral board to the concerns of opposition political parties is an affirmation to this trend.
Free, fair and credible elections are all about processes. At the end of the day, the level of credibility that election processes garner from the voting public would have direct relationship with the legitimacy a resulting government would obtain. Regardless of the identity of the party that manages to triumph over of the election, such legitimacy is an important source of power.
It is vital, therefore, that the overall attitude towards elections is reoriented from one that values results only to one that provides equal weight to processes. This, in a way, means that processes will be made as inclusive as possible.
If one has to be honest, though, the disproportional responsibility for doing so rests on the shoulders of the ruling EPRDF and the NEB. By way of its incumbency, the ruling EPRDF has the responsibility of putting in place election processes that are able to accommodate the concerns of all political parties. As this will be the first election it is going to take part in after the death of its most influential figure, Meles Zenawi, so much is expected from it in the form of firm commitment to inclusive, credible and fair election processes.
As an authority entrusted to manage elections in the country, the NEB has also the responsibility of making sure that all of the election processes are credible enough. It needs to get out of the attitude of rejecting concerns and adopt a new perspective of taking every concern seriously. It ought to make sure that concerns are addressed on time and to a level satisfactory enough to all parties.
No doubt that opposition political parties will also take their fair share of responsibility in this. Instead of just picking faults, they ought to have the resolve to push the walls to make the processes credible. After all, shouting from the sides serves no political purpose at all.
Broadly speaking, though, the task for the political players in the nation entails changing their perspective towards elections. It is only through such a change that the long overdue controversies surrounding elections could be solved. As the saying goes, problems could not be solved with the same mindset they resulted from.
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