Elections approach amid an uneven playing grounds

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Addis ZeybeFebruary 19, 2021
City: Addis AbabaEditorial
Elections approach amid an uneven playing grounds

It was postponed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Consequently, this decision led to the escalation of the relationship between the Federal government and the TPLF led regional government of Tigray which has since been replaced after tensions spilled over into a full blown war on 04 November 2020. And now, as the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia finalizes the preparation and registration process, the country is gearing up to vote for the sixth time since the constitution that erected Ethnic-Federalism was introduced in 1995. The upcoming national and regional elections will be held in a few months time.

For many reasons, Addis Zeybe has chosen this time and this editorial to share some of the concerns in its newsroom regarding the upcoming elections. Before discussing these reasons, however, it will take a few sentences and discuss the sensitive context of the upcoming elections due to the political circumstances that surround it. Had it not been for the novel coronavirus the sixth national and regional elections of Ethiopia was one of the most anticipated political events on the continent. It still is. This is because there were strong local, regional and international hopes over election due to the promise of “reform” set forth by the “reformist” Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D) administration. 

However, not only was this derailed by the measures taken to mitigate the pandemic, to make matters worse the months that followed were marred with instability and insecurity across the country with assassinations, conflicts, mass killings with genocide like threats  and other concerning news updates dominating the recent coarse of events in the country. It has truly been a difficult few months for Ethiopia as a nation and Ethiopians as people. Addis Zeybe believes it is easy - in such circumstances - for the hopes of reform and holding free and fair elections to disappear. There may also be a tendency to not see elections as a priority. This is dangerous. So, because it is important to remind voters, candidates, the ruling and opposition parties, the national electoral board of Ethiopia and other stakeholders that the election has immense value to the integrity of the “reform” the sitting government of Abiy Ahmed Ali. In the words of the Electoral board itself, it is impossible to imagine a system of democracy and good governance without the administration of a free, fair and most importantly periodical election. Ergo, the following essay. 

While there are a number of indicators used to measure the authenticity of an election, it being free, fair and periodical are the fundamental indicators used often. This editorial will focus on the election being fair. In other words - while Addis Zeybe anticipates a number of election related editorials in its near future - the current editorial’s scope is limited to the fair process of the election. Particularly  it will talk about the freedom of assembly and the right to demonstrate, both of which are guaranteed rights in international and regional legislations (to which Ethiopia is party to (ICCPR and ACHPR) as well as forming part of the 1995 Constitution of the country. 

In this regard, Addis Zeybe expresses its concern in relation to campaigning and association rights vis a vis the ruling party and the opposition parties. As the elections approach, several support rallies and demonstrations have been conducted thus far in solidarity with Abiy Ahmed and his party, the Prosperity Party. Just yesterday, Fana Broadcasting Corporate - the state owned and influenced mass media outlet - reported that there were rallies in support of “Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Reformist Leadership of the current administration” in Dessie and Kombolcha cities located in the Southern Wollo Zone of the Amhara Regional State as well as in Konso Zone of the SNNP Region. However, it was not so long ago that rallies in cities across the Oromia Regional State such as Ambo, Aweday, Shashamane and Adama in solidarity of the questions raised by jailed political leaders such as Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba were banned and violently dispersed. On 26 January 2021, the Addis Ababa City Administration also banned the peaceful protest that was organized by the Balderas for Genuine Democracy Party, the party of jailed journalist and political figure, Eskinder Nega.

This is the problematic playing ground which is making the hope of a fair election seem like it's one that may elude the country once more for the sixth time since Ethiopians first voted in 1995. While blanket and close ended arguments such as “security of the public”, “orchestrated by the junta” and “problematic timing” have been raised recurrently by government officials, Addis Zeybe contends that this is not the reality. The fact of the matter is we are a few months away from the election. This in turn makes rallies, protests and peaceful demonstrations more important than ever, consequently also making the freedom of association and demonstration and  other political rights even more imperative. The playing ground must be evened out for all parties including the ruling party and opposition parties. The rhetoric of public security that disappears whenever the ruling party (now the Prosperity Party) holds public events and suspiciously reappears when requests are made by opposition parties must stop in the interest of a fair election. 

If the Prosperity Party can hold rallies in one city, so should other parties. Whether it is war or covid19, if there is a scenario that makes association a threat to security of the country or its citizens, it must apply across the board. A problematic approach impeding the enjoyment of key political rights, the tendency to make blanket legal statements usually not reflective of the situation on the ground to justify banning public demonstrations must be corrected by the current administration which has promised through the President and the Prime Minister a free and fair election. Therefore, a message to the executive to cease from impeding the enjoyment of the freedom of assembly - especially in times of election. Governmental institutions such as the Addis Ababa City Administration must cease from visibly interfering in the administration of the above freedom by selectively awarding some license to rally and associate while denying others. 

The second point that must be discussed is the misplaced understanding in executive institutions such as the police and city as well as regional administrations that they have the power to allow or deny requests for public demonstration in support or against an initiative. This is contrary to both the content and jurisprudence of the right or freedom of association and demonstration. The most appropriate provision in the Ethiopian constitution is Article 30. Article 30 (1) clearly states that Ethiopians have the right to assemble and demonstrate in a peaceful and unarmed manner. The next sentence states that the government shall retain the right to determine certain aspects of the demonstration “in the interest of public convenience relating to the location of open-air meetings and the route of movement.” Such is the power of the executive. To make sure demonstrations are peaceful and unarmed as well as guaranteeing the demonstration does not propagate war propaganda, is not harmful to human dignity and does not affect the well-being of the youth or the honor of individuals.

Regulations on demonstration also only attach the duty of making sure demonstrations are conducted in a peaceful manner to the government. However, in practice this power of the executive extends to denying public demonstration applications, usually with the blanket statements discussed above. This is a very common form of human rights violation. In fact, it's one of the most recurrent forms of infringement for the freedom of association and demonstration rights. Therefore, if the election is to be fair, the electoral board, CSOs and the public must ask the government to refrain from allowing certain groups to demonstrate and others to not. The government on the other hand must be “reformed” to understand its role as a facilitation when it comes to this right. In this regard, the Electoral Board currently in charge of drafting the amendment to the legislation on freedom of association and demonstration must ramp up efforts to provide protection for this immensely important task. 

However, Addis Zeybe strongly believes in the need to give attention to precautionary measures to mitigate the spread and impact of covid19 during the different stages of the upcoming election. From registration to campaign trails and from the voting process to the celebrations or concessions that follow the announcement of the results, the public must not be at an unnecessary risk of exposure at any point. Clear procedural rules on how each activity works and standards that must be met (in the case of demonstrations for instance) for the activities to be conducted must be one of the priorities of the electoral board. Therefore minus the political agenda to use the pandemic as an excuse, Addis Zeybe foresees and hopes that the election and the above demonstrations it is advocating for will be reflective of the covid19 pandemic being a present and proximate threat to Ethiopians. Demonstrations that look like the ones’ we’ve seen since the confirmation of the first covid19 patient on 14 March 2020, almost a year ago. Parties should be required to provide sanitary objects as well as face masks whenever asking their supporters to rally. This includes the prosperity party too. 

In conclusion, if the constant declaration of the commitment to holding free and fair elections is true, Addis Zeybe believes one of the key areas that require reform is the Ethiopian electoral landscape is the norm of the government towards the freedom of association and demonstration. However, realistic necessities to limit this right arising out of the pandemic must also be considered. An important point here is that such considerations of the pandemic must apply across the board to both the ruling party, parties it allows to operate freely for the sake of puppyhood and parties it clearly tries to suppress because of either their potential to challenge it or their perceived “danger to the peace of the country”. The government must understand that the upcoming elections will be the true test of its recurrent claims of “reform”. 

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