By Tony Okerafor
One of the big African stories of the last eight days or so has been the holding of key parliamentary elections in one of the continent’s most populous countries. Ethiopia has been such a major player in not just regional politics, but, equally world affairs, not least since it openly chose to back the United States and other Western governments in their global against terror.
So, when, only last weekend, 32 million Ethiopian flocked polling-stations across the country, several interested parties around the world waited anxiously to see how the exercise was going to pan out. Was it going to be better than the parliamentary elections of five years ago, after which all hell went loose? Would it be fair, free and transparent? Was their any chance that the ruling EPRDF would be voted out of office, after running the country for nearly two decades? And what was the Ethiopian opposition, as well as the international community, going to make of the outcome of this vote?
Well, since the outcome of some 500-plus contested parliamentary seats became public earlier in the week, criticism of the election process has only grown. People find it astonishing that a mere three parliamentary sets went to the opposition combined.
Merdrek and the All Ethiopia’s Unity Party are Ethiopia’s two largest political parties. They received a crushing defeat in last weekend’s national polls. They are saying, however, that the contest is not over yet, and have called for new elections. They accuse the ruling party of intimidation, fraud, harassment and violence. Early results showed the ruling party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi leading in every single corner of the country, including the capital, Addis Ababa, where opposition to the ruling E.P.R.D.F. has traditionally been fierce.
The opposition also say they do not expect the courts to grant their request for the holding of a fresh vote. Even Ethiopia’s conventional courts, along side the elections board, are not known to be independent of the ruling party.
The victorious party in these elections has also been hitting back at its critics, and none other than Prime Minster Meles himself has been leading he way. Reacting to opposition demands for himself has been leading the way. Reacting to opposition demands for a new vote, Meles told journalists, last week, that the law in Ethiopia allows for parties to demand a new vote; but, as he said, the petitioners must first be able to prove in court that the ballot, whose legitimacy they were disputing, was fraudulent.
The Prime Minister’s take on the disputed vote was that it had panned out successfully, because, as he saw it, voters were able to choose candidates without intimidation or coercion. To claims by the twenty seven-member European Union that the exercise was marred by lack of level-playing field, Meles described those as “pure opinion base on rumors.
The EU represent a big-time provider of aid to Ethiopia, and their views on the vote certainly cannot be taken lightly. Apart from the EU, as well as the Ethiopians opposition, who say the poll was less than fair, US-based Human Rights watch also has been speaking out. As the human rights body put it, the May 23 elections were “an orderly facade”.
Ethiopia happens to be the staunchest ally of the United States in the entire region of East Africa. Despite that, Washington has felt compelled to take a swipe at the current EPRDE government in Addis Ababa. Condemning the manner the vote was conducted, a U.S. government spokesman accused the Ethiopian authorities of repression, fraud and intimidation. He attacked the election process — saying it didn’t create an environment of free and fair elections. The official, P.J. Crowley, who is the leading spokesman in he U.S. State Department complained that while the U.S. has commended the Ethiopians for the co-operation on security and other issues, the Obama Administration was “disappointed with the conduct of the election”. He warned that bilateral ties between their two countries will be affected by whether or not the government in Addis addresses elections concerns.
According to Mr. Crowley, the freedom of choice for Ethiopian voters was constrained throughout the electoral process by actions of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government, the National Elections Board and the ruling party and its supporters. He said election laws and procedures enacted after Ethiopia’s last polls back in 2005 created a “clear and decisive advantage” to the ruling EPRDF alliance.
“It is important that steps be taken to level the playing field, and to allow all factions to take part in the process,” Crowley said. “Whether that occurs, he went on, “will influence the future direction of U.S.-Ethiopia relations.”
If Ethiopia valued its relationship with Africa, Crowley said, then, it could not ignore “this strong message “. Again, he said: “We value the co-operation we have with he Ethiopian government on a range of issues, including regional security, climate change, for example. So, we will continue to engage this government. But, we will make clear that there are steps they need to take to improve their democratic institutions.”
Clearly, the Americans were incensed by the refusal of the Ethiopian authorities to allow an American embassy official, who wanted to observe the voting, to travel outside Addis Ababa to visit polling places.
Did the vote fall short of international standards? “Most definitely,” has been the answer from both the U.S. government and E.U.
But, in an equally combative manner, Meles has been responding to the criticism, as well as the veiled threats. On Wednesday, the embattled Meles told reporters in Addis that U.S. criticism “is politically motivated.” He said, “…if the outcome of our elections are such that they cannot continue our partnership, then, permit me to say we’ve been very grateful for the assistance they have rendered so far.”
Meles said, in effect, that his government will not allow itself to be “bossed around” just because it receives aid. The U.S. is the single largest donor to Ethiopia, a country that is no stranger to famine, drought, mass starvation and civil conflict. Every year, the U.S. delivers roughly a billion dollars in financial assistance the country.
Following the last election in 2005, opposition protesters, who were alleging fraud, took to the streets. The resultant crackdown by the government killed over 200 people. Another 100 or so leaders of the opposition, journalist and protesters were arrested. Most of them were pardoned and released within two years. However, many opposition leaders now live in exile or are still holed up in jail.