As the election for the Addis Abeba City Council fast approaches, political parties seem to have started their preparation for the rather eventful process. It all started with the National Electoral Board (NEB) announcing the detailed schedule of election in an event that it organised in Adama, last month. The announcement, however, has seen an unexpected petition by 33 opposition political parties requesting the Board to organise a discussion on the current state of the political space and the challenges faced by the opposition.
Serving as chair of the petting parties is Asrat Tasse, the secretary general of the Unity for Democracy & Justice (UDJ) Party and a member of the executive committee of Medrek, a coalition of six opposition parties. A renowned opposition figure educated at the Addis Abeba University (AAU) and theUniversityofArizona,United States, Asrat explained the objectives of the petition and the expectations of the parties, and specifically that of Medrek, in this exclusive interview with YETNEBERK TADELLE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF of FORTUNE.
Fortune: How did these 33 political parties meet together?
Asrat Tasse: About a month ago, the National Electoral Board (NEB) called us to discuss the timeline of the upcomingAddisAbebaCityelection, in Adama. During the meeting, the majority of the political parties demanded the chairperson to discuss the problems that they face, instead of the items on the schedule. Out of the 66 parties present, 33 of us had agreed not to discuss the schedule unless they considered our pertinent problems.
Q: Did you have any communication amongst yourself before that day? And what is the basis that brought you together?
Absolutely, we used to meet earlier and there were times we worked together. Thus it was very easy to come together in agreement when presenting our concerns to the chairperson, since we had similar desires to discuss issues that were not on the schedule. We formed a stronger bond after the chairperson granted our proposition to discuss our grievances, but this only happened after they took an un-scheduled tea break and decided to reverse their earlier decision to only discuss items on the agenda.
Q: What were the major issues discussed in the meeting?
We want the election administration, from top to down, to be open to all political parties. We know that those in the election administration are members of the EPRDF; others are sympathisers or affiliated. So, we demanded that members of other parties should be included in the administration.
However, the issue of the Code of Conduct of the political parties was raised and members of the EPRDF who were there asked us to sign the Code. We had reservations and therefore we did not sign it.
Q: What are your reasons for not signing the Code of Conduct?
We, as Medrek, do not have any problem with the Code of Conduct. The only question we have is the incompleteness of the document. Originally, the document encompasses three parts and we were asked to sign just one part. We would have signed the document if all the parts were included.
In fact, it is the least important parts, when compared to the rest of the codes, which were left out. These were the codes referring to election administration and election observation.
Q: The Code is already legislated by the parliament as one of the laws of the land. So why not then sign the Code of Conduct and then have a discussion?
Why should we sign a document that has already become a law? It already governs everyone in the country. We want to have a discussion with the ruling party but this does not mean that we should sign the document. We have made it clear that we will abide by the Code of Conduct.
Q: What difference would it make if you were to sign and then begin the discussion? Isn’t your stand rather inflexible?
No, it is not. We have previous experience with the ruling party. There is a political risk; it would be political suicide to sign the Code of Conduct as it is. In addition, the document is not comprehensive. There are hundreds of proclamations passed by the parliament but we are not asked to sign those. Although we do not like it, we are even abiding by the terrorism law which is more coarse and unconstitutional.
Q: Some of the leaders of Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) Party, a member of Mederek, claim that their party may not participate in upcoming election if they do not get a guarantee that the elections will be free and fair. Is this stand in the interest of the constituent?
Actually it should be clear that the UDJ, as well as Medrek, are asking for the bare minimum requirement. We want a level playing field to make the election fair, free and credible. In fact, we are asking for our legitimate right which is in the declaration of the NEB.
But our experience in the election of 2010 showed us that the election was totally rigged. During that election, the secrecy of the ballot was compromised since they assigned one person to supervisee five people in the secret ballot. This was not ethical to maintain the integrity of the process. That was why EPRDF won 99.6pc of the seats in the parliament. It literally violated each and every international election laws. And this has been confirmed by the European Union election observers, the State Department of theUSand other observers.
Q: Are you saying that if these conditions are not on the ground that you are not going to participate in the upcoming election?
I would like to delay this answer. That is not the point. Our aim is to seize power through a peaceful means. For a party that believes in a peaceful takeover of power, there is only one means and that is election. So we are totally for elections – it is the only way to come to power.
But, unless the EPRDF and theNEBare willing to level the playing field, competing is futile. Our experience tell us that we would be putting people’s lives at risk, their land and property may be confiscated, and fabricated allegations will abound. So we do not want to put the people at risk.
The people also have to understand that we are not finding a lame excuse to avoid participating in the election. In fact, we are here as a peaceful party at the expense of a lot of public anger that says that the opposition political parties are giving the EPRDF legitimacy and the ability to claim that there are free and fair elections inEthiopia, which is contrary to the reality.
Q: Elections are approaching and your claims, which seem to be wide in focus, have not yet been addressed. How do you justify the incongruence?
Our questions are not wide, by the way. They are the bare minimum for participating in an election. We are asking about the secrecy in voting; we are asking the election board to be free and make the process easy for all of us. I would not say these are wide questions.
Q: The member parties of Medrek have differences in their political standings. How are you working together then?
There are six members of Medrek and we have only three differences. These are the land issue, choices in parliamentary system and federalism.
However, we made an agreement that if we win the election, we will let the public decide on the issue through a referendum.
Q: Unless you disclose your agendas clearly to the people before the election, don’t you think it will be a problem later on?
No. It should be the right of the people to chose. If the people chose the land to be privatized or owned by the government, it is up to the choice of the people. The same for the choice of federalism or parliamentary government, it must be decided by the people. But currently, we are trying to narrow the differences among us.
Q: Usually it is said that opposition political parties are loud only when election comes and they are silent and do nothing the rest of the time. Do you have any reflections on this?
I do not feel that we are loud enough even during the election. We are living under a dictatorial regime. We do not have any means to be loud. For instance, Finote Netsanet, our party’s newspaper, is banned from being publishing by the state owned printing press, Berehanena Selam. You know about the private newspapers that are out of circulation like Fitih, Addis Neger, and Awramba Times. You know that organising public rallies is not possible. So there is no opportunity to be loud enough.
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