The zonal and woreda elections 2001 in Hadiya and Gedeo

By Siegfried Pausewang

“We have the right to vote. We have registered, we have voting cards. But we can not make use of our right, because our candidates are not there. We demand our right to vote.”

It is voting day. But these people are not on their way to the voting station. Their speakers, talking all at once, explain:

“Our party has nominated six candidates for the zone and three for the woreda, the same number as the EPRDF. But when we came to the voting station in the morning, their names were not there.”

We had stopped the car to ask three farmers walking along the roadside for the direction. They immediately pull their voter cards from their pockets holding them demonstratively up in the air. They shout a few words, and soon other men appear from somewhere, also waving blue voter cards. We understand that they have a message for us, and climb out of the car.

Where do all these people come from? Within seconds we are surrounded by people waving voter cards. I count roughly thirty people, – a minute later it may be fifty or more.

We feel reminded of Kjetil Tronvoll’s experience in this area during the elections of 2000, when people through their refusal to go to the rigged voting manifested their protest and eventually got a re-election.

A people with political tradition

In this area of Hadiya, one and a half year ago, the Hadiya National Democratic Organisation (HNDO), an opposition party, had won a landslide election victory, in spite of discrimination, cheating, and violence. The voters had sent 24 candidates of their party to the Regional Council of Southern region, out of totally 30 seats from Hadiya, and seven to the Federal House. But it had not happened without a fight: In the elections of May 2000, HNDO candidates and voters were put under strong pressure, some were beaten, imprisoned, others threatened. In some places, ballot boxes were stuffed in the morning of election day, in others the full boxes were stolen in the evening. Two women were killed and several wounded by police shots. A Hadiya People’s Democratic Organisation (HPDO) observer threw a hand grenade into a room where his colleague from HNDO was eating lunch with his wife, killing both (see report on the election in Hadiya, in: Pausewang and Tronvoll 2000: 149-169). In several constituencies a re-election was conducted on 25 June, under strict control of the National Electoral Board, which completed the victory of HNDO (see report on the re-election in Pausewang/ Tronvoll, 2000: 212-225).

This year, too, people are more than willing to report their grievances to a foreigner: their candidates have been arrested, and only released recently after intervention of the National Electoral Board (NEB). Voters have been told they would not be entitled to communal services, access to relief food distribution or fertiliser if not voting for the EPRDF-affiliated party. Then, after the release of most imprisoned supporters, HNDO fielded six candidates each in every constituency except one in Hadiya. However, when people arrived at the voting stations in the morning, they found out that all of their candidates had been cancelled at the last moment. The kebele had checked the signatures endorsing their candidacy, and found them insufficient. Kebele officials claimed that some signatories had withdrawn their endorsement, others were found to be under age, signatures had been forged, or people cheated to sign. But these peasants told us with anger that such accusations were altogether groundless, but difficult to disproof. “Why should they have forged signatures? There were sufficient people who were willing to sign for HNDO candidates”, they said. So people protested, saying they knew their rights and would not go to the polls if their candidates had been cancelled. Instead they went to the street, waving their voter cards in a peaceful demonstration for their right to vote.

Similar accusations were told in many places the same day and the days before. In the neighbouring constituency, Soro 2, two of the six HNDO candidates were still in the election. Early in the morning, there was none in Soro 2 either. But after some debate and after the HNDO threatened to file a complaint with the NEB, the election officials accepted two candidates and re-introduced their names belatedly on the lists in the voting stations.

“You see, the kebele officials call people who signed to their office, one by one. Me, I was told: So you want to get rid of us, after all we have done for you – you know that might have consequences next time you want to get fertiliser, or when you need a service from the kebele.”

“Me, they told me: Don’t come to us next time you need food assistance. We get food supplies from international charitable donors if there is an emergency. Why should we give you from our food if you betray us by not voting for us… I said I know my rights, and I would complain, so they left me alone. But I know of others who withdrew their signature. They signed a prepared statement saying they had been forced to endorse this candidate.”

People protest in the streets

We told the people that we had no influence on the election and could not intervene nor investigate, but that we would take note of their complaints and report them. Not far along the road we reached a voting station. The officials were sitting on the shade of a kebele office, no activity was seen, there were no voters. When the officials saw us they came to meet us. “You have a lunch break?” I asked. “No,” they said, “voting continues, but there are no voters.” One of them said: “I don’t know why, I am from Addis Ababa, “I don’t know people here. Maybe they will come after lunch, or after church. But everything is OK here.” I was told there had been a conflict in the morning, but it had been cooled down by the electoral board and some policemen. Now everything was going smoothly. At this point a young man came forward and said:

“You see, this is no fair election. Since it is not correct, they don’t want to come. There is only one candidate of HNDO for the woreda and two for the zone. But the government (sic) has three and six candidates respectively. This is all nonsense… The opposition candidates have been in prison and only four weeks ago they were released. They were allowed to collect signatures for their candidacy but this morning we learned that the signatures had been cancelled. Then, later in the morning, those two were re-introduced. People are threatened to vote for EPRDF or face consequences. So people decided not to go to the vote, but go to the street instead and protest. You can see there…”

Indeed, while we talked people had gathered around. They had seen our car and came running from all corners, waving their light blue voter cards high in the air. “- Oh, these are just school students, they are under age, but they want to disturb the election”, explained one of the officials.

We went back to the car and were soon surrounded by a quickly growing crowd of protesting, chanting, cheering peasants waving their voter cards. Most of them were men at all ages, but there were also quite a few women among them. One after another they told us their stories of how they had been warned to vote for HPDO and threatened with consequences if they voted HNDO. Some told us about being beaten, others said they had been in prison.

“In the voting station, people are forced to vote for EPRDF. When people come out of the booth, someone is there to check what they voted for. If it is HNDO, they tear the ballot to pieces and give them a new form: Now you fill it for EPRDF.”

“How is that possible?”

“You can go and see it for yourself. They are there…”

“My son was slapped in his face: Why do you mark your ballot like that? Fill out another one correctly – you know how…”

“We will not go to the election though we have registered, because we can not cast our votes for the party we want and for our candidates.”

A well-dressed man pushed his way through to our car and explained in English to me: “Don’t listen to them. They are just trying to disturb the election. There is nothing true in what they tell you… These are just troublemakers – we know them. Don’t listen…”

By that time, a huge crowd had collected around our car. I tried to count people on one side to make an estimate of their number – there might have been between 300 and 400 or more waving their voter cards above their heads:

A short distance down the road we met another group of agitated people, they too waving voter cards. They asked for a lift, and we continued with a full car, people telling us on the way further details about how they had been threatened to vote for the EPRDF or face repression.

Giving people a lift was indeed a good way to be able to talk undisturbed. We made use of it where we could. Early in the morning, a young man told us that there had been big problems last year:

“It was a conflict between EPRDF and HNDO. It became a conflict between the people and the police. That made people very angry. So this year everything is covered. Everything is in our heart. We don’t talk, don’t want to say whom we elect. People have learned. Now they don’t talk….”

An elder from Soro also came with us for a few kilometres, and explained further:

“The election should be free, so everybody can elect whomever they like. But here, there are no candidates of the opposition party. They have all been cancelled yesterday. In Soro 1 and Soro 2, there are no candidates of HNDO, only of EPRDF. This is a problem not of the people, but of the administration. They try to manipulate – people ask for a correction – but they don’t find a remedy. Well, we are going to solve that problem. We will do it in a cool manner, rather than by violence.”

It turned out that in Soro 2, two of the six opposition candidates were re-admitted. In the morning, when voting stations opened, there were only EPRDF candidates. Later in the morning two names were added again on the lists posted in voting stations. The other four seats remained uncontested, with only EPRDF having a candidate running.

Voting with only one alternative

In Gimbicho, we met at the entrance the chairman of the voting station. He saw our letter of introduction and welcomed us. Another man who spoke some English approached us and wanted to see the letter. He was introduced as a kebele official. We saw from the outside the voting taking place in open air. Voters went into one of the rooms prepared as “secret booth”, came out again and put their ballots into the box. The process appeared to be working according to the rules. But was there any competition? We asked the kebele official which candidates were competing, and he explained that there were six candidates for the zone and three for the woreda from EPRDF and the same number from the HNDO. A short time after, two NEB officials who had been sent from Addis Ababa to this voting station explained that there were no candidates from the opposition – only from the EPRDF. The kebele official was embarrassed and tried to explain: There had been candidates of HNDO, but they did not have sufficient signatures and could not meet the necessary conditions.

Back on the road, a young lady who got a lift told us in a tone of incitement and indignation:

“The election? It was terrible. I came to the voting station this morning. I gave them my registration card and got my ballot paper. They asked me to fill it in while they were watching. I wanted to elect HNDO. But they said: No, make your mark here, not there – pointing at the EPRDF candidates. I said no, I know where to mark. But they insisted, and said otherwise I would have to face consequences, I could not live in the community. What can I do? If my children get sick I need a paper from the kebele to take them to hospital… They appeared quite threatening. I was afraid, so I marked the EPRDF candidates and voted for them. What can I do? They will punish me if I insist. But this is not an election..”

And then we get in our car three men who defend the EPRDF. They tell us a lot of complaints against the HNDO:

“The opposition group tell things they don’t believe themselves to win voters. For example they say: When we come to power we will give you work opportunities, we will eradicate corruption, we will privatise land so you will be allowed to sell your land. – The opposition people want government workers to share their salaries with their party candidates. They hate those who follow the government. They want to exclude the government followers from membership in the edir (a community self-help organisation). Last year they told people: Beyene Petros will distribute fertiliser by helicopter… But it is not he who said that. Still, people don’t know Beyene. They do many things in his name, which he did not say. People expect immediate change. And sometimes, when a robber or a murderer is put in prison, they call Beyene and say: our candidates are arrested…”

Then we arrive at another voting station where the chairman comes to meet us. This station belongs to Gibe, another constituency with no opposition candidates. “They could not come to compete,” says the voting station chairman, “People here don’t accept them. They can not explain their programme and their ideas.” Gibe is a new woreda, and according to people in the HNDO office in Hosaina, it was created recently as an independent woreda, people were told: Now you got your own woreda, now you have to vote for us. Voting goes on, but there are very few people coming, no queues, but no problems.

In the next voting station, there is no secret booth. The official that controls the registration card and hands the ballot paper to the voters shows them where to mark their ballots. They do it under his supervision. The chairman of the voting station, also sent from Addis Ababa, does not react to this open breach of the rules; he even invites us to see the process. But there is no opposition anyway in this constituency, so it makes no difference. There are very few voters, one explains: People will come after church.

In another voting station, in a big tent, there is a secret booth but it is clearly visible from afar that there is somebody standing in the booth advising voters and controlling what they vote. The station chairman however finds that everything is smooth and peaceful and no problems occur. There are no observers from HNDO, though three candidates of their party are competing in this constituency, two for the zone and one for the woreda. They could not come, they could not meet the conditions, explains the station chairman.

A man comes towards the voting station, but is chased away with harsh words: You are not supposed to be here – it turns out he is a candidate of the opposition who wants to talk to us. The rules say he is supposed to stay away, so we have to see him later. On the other hand, the kebele chairman finds no problems in being present – though the rules ban him as well from entering the voting station.

We find the candidate later in the village. Together with some friends we talk to him in a small hotel. The candidate tells us he has been in prison for seven months, together with other candidates, for no crime except being a candidate for HNDO. In prison, he says, we were asked: if you join our party you will be free. But he had refused. He was only released shortly before the new election. But this year, he says, they decided to reject our candidates. The Election Board and the kebele worked together. That is why people found a new way of expressing their protest – by waving their voter cards saying: This is no election… His friend added:

“Yesterday evening we were rejected, they argued that some of the signatures were not qualified, were from under-aged or not resident voters. But this is only their justification for refusing us. Why would we cheat? Even if time was short, there were many people willing to sign for us, it was not a problem at all to get signatures. My friend here complained and told them he would accuse them with the National Electoral Board, so they got afraid and two candidates were re-admitted and added to the lists this morning. But a good number of people had already voted by then.”

Complaints of the opposition

Everywhere people told us similar stories of candidates imprisoned and of cadres threatening people and forcing them to vote for their party. The list of complaints against the governing party was long, and repetitive. The most important complaints expressed to me were:

Candidates and supporters were arrested, both before the elections to prevent them from running, and after the previous elections as a punishment. So they expected revenge also after this one. The most popular candidates are targeted; we were told.

People known to belong to the opposition are beaten, threatened, harassed.

There is discrimination in distribution of fertilisers. Supporters of the opposition have been refused food aid and community services. People who oppose the government loose their jobs- many teachers are dismissed or transferred to remote places, families separated etc.

The police are engaged for frightening and harassing supporters of the opposition.

Before the election, military was brought into the regions, soldiers are harassing people, especially in remote areas, creating fear and penalising HNDO supporters.

Administrative leaders use government resources for personal gain, give jobs to their friends and family and embezzle money.

When HNDO exposed corruption in the administration, the administration took revenge, jailed leaders under false accusations, dismissed them from jobs etc.

Peasants were forced to pay their fertiliser debts twice, the first payment not being accounted for; or they were forced to pay for fertiliser they had not received.

In the election, candidates of the opposition were refused under pretext of having forged signatures, having forced people to sign, having signatures of under-age youths.

The lists of signatures identify supporters of the opposition, who are then targeted, called in, asked: “So you do not support us? You know this will have consequences?”

People who signed for a candidate of the opposition were threatened and given a paper to sign that they had been cheated or forced and wanted to withdraw their signatures. Thereafter the candidates were dismissed for not having the required number of signatures.

Candidates of HNDO were called in and threatened and given a prepared letter to sign that they withdrew their candidacy, because they felt HNDO had been cheating them.

In the voting stations, people had to show their ballots, and were advised to vote for EPRDF. In some places there were no secret booths (as I had also seen myself).

In some voting stations there were officials in the secret booth giving advise (In one voting station I saw this myself).

From some voting stations, it was reported that officials controlled ballot papers, tore apart those filled for HNDO and demanded voters to fill another one for EPRDF.

It was alleged that the local election boards worked together with EPRDF, that election officials silently accepted such manipulations or even supported them.

People who went to the streets to protest against an election, in which all or most of their candidates had been cancelled, claimed that they were beaten by police.

Complaints of the ruling party

But there were equally many complaints from officials and their supporters against the opposition:

The opposition has no programme except being against the present government.

The opposition is lacking in maturity. The top leaders may be responsible but their followers misuse their name and reputation, do illegal things.

They create unrest, support bandits, and create destruction of public property.

They recruit former soldiers of the Derg, who escaped with their weapons, and are dangerous, difficult to control, jeopardise peace.

If a criminal is arrested, they say: our member is imprisoned.

If a criminal is arrested, they say: We will get you out if you become our member.

They are all criminals, and they recruit criminals.

They promise former soldiers to be policemen if the opposition wins.

They promise the unemployed jobs after they win the election.

They make unrealistic promises to get people’s support.

They force people to sign for them, and they forge signatures go register candidates.

They tell people not to pay taxes, to refuse paying their fertiliser loans.

Because of the opposition, the farmers did not get fertilisers. This will lead to a famine in spite of good weather.

HNDO ostracises people who support EPRDF, try to have them excluded from the edir, from community life.

People are beginning to get fed up with HNDO. Beyene Petros is getting unpopular. He is never coming here, but is steering the party from Addis Ababa.

People hope to escape from their debts and from tax payment, therefore they listen to the opposition’s empty promises. This is why they have followers.

The opposition is only running for elections if they think they can win. If they loose they withdraw and say: it was unfair, we were cheated.

Mutual accusations are almost always accompanying election campaigns. And seldom will it be possible to sort out what is true and what is not correct. Luckily we do not need to judge these controversies here. All we need to conclude is an assessment of whether the elections were sufficiently unbiased to promote democratisation in Ethiopia. The question is thus: Was there sufficient room for all competing parties to discuss and promote their views and aims, and to compete in the election for representation in the relevant councils? Which factors reduced equal chances, and how severely did they affect equality? And has the situation improved or deteriorated, compared to the last elections? We will attempt to answer these questions on the base of the experience in the December 2001 election.

Control and coercion

Hadiya conducted a largely peaceful election. There was little direct violence on voting day in December 2001. We saw no military seen patrolling on the streets, neither in town nor on the rural roads. There were complaints about military being dispatched to remote areas in the weeks before election, but if so, we have not heard complaints about the soldiers interfering in the elections. We have not heard of any violent incidents as they were reported from the 2000 elections. This is certainly an important improvement from 2000.

However, there has been considerable repression especially in the rural areas in the months before the election, and indeed ever since the 2000 election was won by HNDO in Hadiya. The kebele and woreda authorities used the police to penalise HNDO candidates and supporters. There can hardly be any doubt that the lists of signatures for the HNDO candidates served as information to penalise opposition supporters. We were told that many of them were imprisoned and kept in jail for some weeks or months without being heard by a court. Others were punished by administrative disfavours – such as getting no access to fertiliser, being asked to pay their debts on the spot, or other unnecessary administrative obstacles. It may be true that the opposition has a tendency to overstate such incidents. But the pattern is too well known everywhere in the rural areas to be dismissed. And in Hadiya especially, there are so many indicators to the same effect that we see no reason for doubts. For the average peasant, repression was felt first of all through warnings – and if necessary more direct threats – that lack of support for the ruling party would have severe consequences. Where such hints were not sufficient, peasants were told in no uncertain terms that they would not receive fertilisers, they would not get access to land, and they would be excluded from communal services. If this did not bring the desired result, family members were put under pressure or the person himself was threatened something could happen to his family. The whole spectre of coercive measures designed to make the peasants dependent on the administration, and hence docile, as it is known from other areas, was applied in full measure in Hadiya. This is the conclusion we can draw after listening to many complaints of peasants and other informants who live in the area and know the rural life conditions well.

This form of indirect control and coercion was also applied during election day, and may at least partly explain why there was indeed no need for military intervention. People were afraid, and had reason to be. In particular, candidates and party organisers of HNDO were visibly afraid, and were treated almost like outcasts. We saw in Soro a candidate of HNDO being chased away from a voting station – formally correct, as the rules forbid a candidate to be present in the station except for casting his own vote. But an official of the kebele was present in the same voting station, as kebele chairmen were in others, in spite of the rules banning also them from the station. Also ordinary voters were conscious of being under control and kept in fear. Most visible, people who told us they had been requested – in some cases outrightly ordered – to vote for EPRDF, abided through fear. And those who dared to challenge the administration, expressed fear that they would face retaliation, imprisonment and worse. Again, individual incidents and reports might be overstated or invented to impress us. But we have by now sufficient experience from all over the country to know that this form of repression has increased in general and we are able to sense its ascent.

To the picture of repression is added the fact that none of the people from the administrative and government side who were responsible for crimes under the 2000 election – see the report by Kjetil Tronvoll (Pausewang/Tronvoll 2000: 149-169) were held responsible up to now. I asked the Secretary of Hadiya zone, Ato Tamrat, whether any one of those responsible for crimes at that time has been brought to court. He answered evasively: They are powerless now, the previous chairman and secretary of the zone have both been replaced by new faces. The secretary was transferred to another region. The former chairman, his name was also Tamrat, is now at the Civil Service College in Addis Ababa. (A significant step in a future career, I thought, which he must have appreciated.) The one who threw the deadly hand grenade apparently is not arrested – though Ato Tamrat only admitted, “some robbers and gangsters are not to be controlled… though those who do serious crimes are controlled.” The opposition in Hadiya has a point when asking: How come they could not arrest and persecute even one of those responsible for these serious crimes – while they could imprison hundreds of our supporters? And this is not an overstatement: the Electoral Board got over 100 people in Hadiya area released before HNDO agreed to participate in the election.

A structure of administrative control

As we have shown in the report on the time between the elections (see NIHR Report 2001:14), repression is embedded in the administrative structure. It is caused by the fact that the ruling party cadres have control over all the resources of government institutions. And they know that they will loose access to these resources if they loose an election. So they defend not only their seats and their party in an election campaign, but their social status, their jobs, the livelihood of their families. So they fight for their seats with all means, often even illegal ones. They have the power to do so, for they know that also the judges and the police are dependent on them and would not dare challenging them.

In December 2001, apparently, the local cadres of HPDO attempted – successfully – to assure their election victory by making sure that HNDO could not compete with sufficient numbers of candidates to gain a victory. Instead of frightening voters into voting for them, – a strategy which in 2000 led to serious violence – they used their administrative control over information and over the institutions controlling the process on local level. Kebele officials had to check the lists of signatures of each candidate. So the kebele cadres made sure that so many signatures were either rejected or withdrawn that the candidates of HNDO could be disqualified. There were several ways to achieve this: some signatures were cancelled because the persons were considered under-age, or not residents. Others were persuaded to withdraw their signatures. In some kebele people reported being called in and told they would have to face consequences if they supported the opposition. People have experience that the kebele officials have the power to put force behind their threats. So it did not take too much convincing to make people sign a prepared letter saying they had been mistaken, or they were cheated by HNDO, and withdrew their signatures. In some cases also candidates themselves were threatened and forced to withdraw from candidacy in the last moment.

In Hosaina constituency, all candidates of HNDO were running. But in more remote areas they were withdrawn or disked. In the two constituencies of Soro 1 and 2, all HNDO candidates for the Zonal council were cancelled – but during voting day, two of them were re-admitted in Soro 2 (plus one for the woreda council) – two to three hours after the election had started. We talked to several candidates and HNDO supporters, who told us about the candidate who protested and was re-admitted. Another one was told he could not compete because there was a court case against him, we were told. But when he protested and the police found no charge against him, he was re-admitted. Still, in Soro 1 and 2, there were only two opposition candidates standing against twelve EPRDF candidates for the zonal council, and one against six for the woreda. A majority for the opposition was excluded beforehand. And in fact, people felt disenfranchised: “Our candidates are not there – how can we go to vote?”

The morning after the election I met the chairman of NEB, Assefa Birru, in Hosaina. He was confident that these elections had been much better than the last ones. As far as security was concerned, I could only agree. I mentioned the demonstrations in Soro. He admitted there was a problem, and said he might himself be partly responsible for it, because he accepted the cancellation of candidates. HNDO could have filed a complaint, he said, and have got a re-election. But people had spoilt the situation by refusing to go to the polls. As they had not voted, they could hardly complain either.

I think his decision was correct. The kebele was the competent authority to verify the signatures. He could not without lengthy and serious investigations reject the result of their scrutiny. As the highest Election Board official present, he had to accept the judgement of the kebele certifying that a substantial number of signatories were cancelled because they were under-age, non-residents or otherwise legally not entitled to sign, others had withdrawn their signatures. Even if he, warned by experience, might have reacted to the fact that all the twelve HNDO candidates (or at least ten of them) had cheated, while all candidates of the EPRDF were admitted, he had no legally relevant grounds to overrule their conclusion. However much he might have doubted, he could only give an opening for an ex-post investigation, and a possible re-election. The problem is that a re-election is almost impossible to attain, unless blatant violations are obvious. Local authorities know very well that they can get away with almost any kind of rigging. If the opposition goes to court for a re-election, the burden of proof is theirs; and local courts depend on the local government and would not easily accept evidence against them. In this case, even Assefa Birru indicated he saw little chance now, as the people had boycotted the polls. They will no doubt be told: Since you voluntarily decided to make use of your right not to vote, you can not complain when the other side wins. But what else could they have done? Had they voted blank, they would have been told that by doing so they had accepted the election.

Candidates and representation

Totally in Hadiya zone, HNDO could compete with 35 candidates for 60 seats in the Zonal council. 25 candidates were dismissed- while EPRDF could field all their 60 candidates. One might still argue that an opposition party that systematically cheats does not deserve better. However, the experience in earlier elections reveals a different pattern. In case of serious competition a situation is created which effectively stops the opposition in a way that is legally hard to challenge. Formally, the opposition is given an option to go to court and prove that they were discriminated to a degree that makes a re-election necessary. It puts the burden of proof with the opposition. In practice, with slow and inefficient local courts, which on top of that are not independent from the administrative and political leadership, the opposition never expects appeals in court to give results. In most cases they are not even accepted.

The President of Southern Region (SNNPRS), with whom we had a long meeting before the election, made a point of the establishment of Joint Committees on kebele, woreda and zonal level, which were to mediate in case of disputes on the election. These committees consisted of one representative each of the competing parties and an official from the electoral board. He expected them to become a neutral institution, which could contribute to create an atmosphere of trust and equal opportunity. However, in practice, at least in Hadiya, they were totally sidelined or not established at all. They may have been efficient in negotiating minor individual quarrels and complaints. In the question of dismissing signatures and lists, they were neither involved before nor after a candidate was rejected. In such a decisive issue for the election on zonal and woreda level, they had no influence whatsoever.

The National Electoral Board had sent election officers to most woreda in Hadiya, to pre-empt accusations of election officials being local officials and EPRDF members. They were posted in the kebele in time before the election, and seemingly became integrated into the local power structures. Otherwise it would not be explainable why they accepted the serious shortcomings and formal faults in the electoral process: There were voting stations with no secret booths, an electoral official from Addis Ababa being there and accepting that people were told where to mark the ballot for EPRDF. There were voting stations with somebody in the booth checking what people voted, again without protest from the NEB representative. There were also voting stations where the observers of HNDO were not allowed access. NEB officials in the voting station joined uncritically the local officials’ attempts at explaining away the low turnout of voters and the demonstrating people on the street with their voter cards. The overall impression is that they have let themselves be absorbed by the local culture of the administration.

One ploy to deprive HNDO of an earlier victory seems to have been planned, or at least accepted, on higher level. According to the explanation of the President of SNNPRS given three days before the election, the zones are administrations, not governments. Therefore the zonal councils are composed of 50 % directly elected members. The other half represents the Regional Council. They were elected in 2000 to represent the zone in the Regional Council. For Hadiya, this meant that HNDO had already 24 seats in the Zonal council, and would win a majority if getting another seven or more candidates elected into the 60-seat zonal council. According to the Secretary of Hadiya zone, the zonal council had been increased to 85 members. The zone elected in total 60 representatives, six each in the 10 constituencies. HNDO had already won 21 out of 85 seats in the zonal council, and needed another 22 to win a majority – a substantial difference, but not impossible to win under conditions of equal chances. But when the NEB announced the results of the elections, all 54 seats in Hadiya zone were won by EPRDF’s member party HPDO, and there were, according to NEB, only 54 seats in the zonal council. The newly added 30 members elected in 2001 had not extended the council but replaced the 21 or 24 seats already won by HNDO.

There may be good reasons for changing from indirect representation to directly elected zonal councils, especially in Southern region, where the zone is often the highest level of self-determination for one ethnic group. But changing the rules on the way, after an opposition has achieved a partial electoral victory, can not be called a fair play or an equal chance. And explaining to foreign researchers the old system while a new one is already being voted for does not strengthen the credibility of an electoral process in the hands of local, zonal and regional authorities.

Nothing new in Gedeo?

For comparison and to check on the general pattern of discriminating against an opposition and pushing on them the onus to take the administration to court and prove alleged faults, I decided to take a short detour and re-visited Gedeo, where I followed the elections in May 2000. Here, at least two constituencies should have had a re-election in 2000, had equality and fair play been honoured. Probably four, if not all seven constituencies should have repeated the voting. As reported earlier, the Gedeo People’s Democratic Organisation (GPDO) believed to have a large majority of voters behind their candidates. In the days before the election we had seen a very tense situation. The GPDO claimed that pressure and violence was directed against their members. And indeed we got serious indications supporting that view. There was a palatable atmosphere of fear, and it was clearly targeting the GPDO. In Bule, woreda authorities chased some GPDO members from the community for disclosing internal complaints to outside researchers. They had been telling us their complaints.

The woreda election board in Cochorre tried to hide from us the fact that they had given training to communal and party election observers, but had – at the orders of the woreda chairman – excluded the observers from GPDO. In itself a small issue, this was but another indisputable indication that authorities consciously used their power to limit the chances of GPDO in the election. We were witnesses to arrests, talked to several GPDO observers who were imprisoned on election day, and saw military patrolling the highway with a machine gun mounted on a car with local government plates.

The one ploy that alone would have necessitated a re-election was the “Women-first”-trick: when during the voting day the queues before voting stations became too long, officials started to urge people to let women vote first. Soon they admitted only women to enter the voting stations, while the men – at least the younger men – had to wait. By three o’clock there were huge crowds of men waiting outside the voting stations. By four o’clock they started to get excited, saying:

“You see, they don’t refuse all the men. Their supporters are allowed in. The women they can put under pressure inside. They don’t know the rules, they are weak. What you see standing outside here, is the politically conscious part of the population. And you will see, by six o’clock they will close the voting station and we will be sent home without voting.”

Indeed, in most voting stations, people were sent home at six o’clock sharp. The young men outside were denied their right to vote after they were made to wait for hours. From Michille, the neighbouring constituency, other observers reported the same pattern. Large crowds of disenfranchised people had even come to the zonal capital of Dilla to protest, but were sent back home without remedy.

I have indisputable proof that the zonal administration knew of the “women-first”-ploy and most probably had initiated it. Gedeo should have had a re-election in 2000 had there been serious concern for equal chances and a fair election campaign. I reported the “women-first-ploy” and the other issues to the National Electoral Board, and other observers did. But the Board did not consider such reports as evidence that could be used in court.

We can of course not know whether GPDO would have won a majority in a fair contest, or in a re-election. It was never tested. But indirectly, the ruling party admitted that they were afraid of loosing. Had they been as confident of their victory as they pretended, they would never have taken the risk to invent a ploy and exclude a large group of GPDO supporters from casting their votes.

Conclusion: Election without competition

Coming back to Dilla and Gedeo one and a half-year later, I was immediately reminded of the discouraging experience of the 2000 elections. I met again the zonal chairman, Yohannes Gebeyehu on his last day in office: He is moving to Awasa, to become the President of the Regional Council. The official who introduced the “Women-first” campaign got a scholarship for a PHD at a foreign university. Yohannes told me that everything was peaceful and there were no tensions now. But from several people, from independent citizens and supporters of GPDO, I heard a different story. A short visit of one day and a half can hardly produce definite evidence. But impressions give a clear picture. The ruling Gedeo People’s Revolutionary Democratic Movement (GPRDM) penalised GPDO as an organisation as well as their supporters. After the election in 2000 was over and observers had left, the offices of GPDO were immediately closed and many of their candidates and supporters were arrested. Others escaped to Addis Ababa and returned only after the worst revenge was over. I was told about supporters of GPDO who were dismissed from jobs, their families were threatened. The pattern was the same as we had seen it in Hadiya, in Muger in Oromia, in Seraro, and even in Addis Ababa in February 2001.

The elections of 2001 were uncontested in Gedeo. Only some few independent candidates were competing against GPRDM. Some of them had been nominated by GPRDM and even their lists of signatures were provided by the authorities. Representatives of GPDO told me that they had come to the conclusion that the EPRDF can not be challenged in elections. They did not put up candidates, and did not participate in the election of 2001. While that meant to limit their political activities, the leaders in Addis Ababa indicated they could not take the responsibility to ask people to register as candidates, knowing which consequences they would have to face.

HNDO in Hadiya has drawn the same conclusion after the December 2001 election. One of the party leaders told me: “At least, we have proven that it is, under present conditions, impossible to challenge the EPRDF in elections.”

FORUM | AMHARIC