A week from today, the majority of the 32 million voters registered to take part in the fourth national elections will cast their votes to award a social contract to a political party they deem competent to run their collective affairs.
There are 63 of these political parties bidding to win this contract, fielding an aggregate of over 6,000 candidates. Taxpayers are spending over 140 million Br, to ensure that all the 43,000 polling stations across the country are provided with logistical requirements to enable these voters to exercise their democratic rights.
But, right or wrong, this is an election that is haunted by the dark memories of its predecessor in 2005 and will be measured on the scale of what was, for many, the most contested national elections the nation has ever seen.
The trauma of electoral violence and bloodshed, as well as the political crises the nation went through, remains fresh in the memories of many voters. It was a process which unfortunately led to the post electoral violence that tragically and regrettably claimed the lives of nearly 200 people.
The fear that such turmoil is an inevitable outcome of the electoral process in very polarised countries such as Ethiopia is alarmingly overwhelming. It is not without reason.
Practicing electoral democracy in countries emerging from civil wars and where poverty victimised what Paul Collier, professor of economics at Oxford University, described as “the bottom billions” is a dangerous business. In fact, in his highly acclaimed book titled, “Wars, Guns, and Votes,” Collier illustrated the chaotic aftermath that elections can bring.
It did get bloody and chaotic in Ethiopia five years ago. The conduct of regular national elections, as instruments of the free expression of the voting public, in order to ensure peaceful and legal contests for political power, turned out in Ethiopia to be the very source of violence.
Some blame the incumbent for what followed the polling date. The announcement by the chairman of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), on the same night the votes were cast, long before counting was concluded, is seen by many as the trigger for the whole mess. Others blame the opposition, for its stubborn position not to use legal recourse and its refusal to accept the results and its failure to join Parliament. Others blame the West for meddling such as Anna Gomez, while some point their fingers at the media.
Truth be told, almost all parties involved in the 2005 electoral saga, including the voting public, has their respective share of the blame. Basically, the responsibility lies on all of these bodies that are part of this political process. In its own way, though not in a manner that is often exaggerated by some political pundits, the media played a part in fomenting emotions on both sides. If its critics recall how unprofessional and devoid of ethical conduct the media was five years ago, its practitioners should only accept such criticisms with grace.
Clearly, practitioners in both the public and private media had displayed utter disregard for their ethical and professional obligations and flagrantly showed their political partisanship.
If any party involved in the electoral business of the nation wants to avoid the rerun of 2005, particularly how recklessly partisan the media was, it can only be understandable. Whether the request comes from the incumbent or its political opponents or those in charge of managing the national elections, anyone may want to see the media commit itself to high standards of professionalism, and it is only fair.
It would not make Ethiopia an exceptional place on earth, if any or all of these parties developed some sort of agreed upon document that would govern how the media behaves during times of bitterly contested struggles for political power.
This will be a national election to be seen and judged through the prism of the previous elections and how excitingly contested they were. When compared to 2005, this year’s election might be lacking the twists and turns of the 2005 election, which stirred the electorate melodramatically. It is now frequently insinuated by many as a process which is taciturn and dull. The whole process is a mockery of the electorate or by the electorate, some even say. It is a premature conclusion.
This calls for a responsibly conducted and seriously undertaken electoral process. So far, it has been relatively smooth, from voters’ registration to the campaigns, which included televised debates, albeit rebroadcast. Though there are several reservations and criticisms by some over the way the rebroadcast debates were transmitted, they can still be considered to have been a structured, well-mannered, and decorous process.
The manners displayed by the political parties while campaigning deserves to be applauded, despite allegations of politically motivated assassinations and alleged harassments of the major contending parties. Regardless of real causes and apportioned blame on those allegedly committing the killings, condolence is in order to the families of the victims.
And they are unfortunate reminders that it may be too early to celebrate the process.
Nonetheless, what has been done so far is above reproach. In Ethiopia, a mere student of democracy, it would not be too much to expect the worst. So often, as it is in many African countries, elections are usually accompanied by widespread violence and virulent mutual attacks by contesting parties. This was also the case in Ethiopia in 2005.
The Ethiopian electorate, regardless of its choice, should elect its future leaders taking into consideration a smooth and peaceful democratic process. This is the most important point at which political parties from the various strands in the political spectrum should accept as axiomatic.
Political maturity, demonstrated through exemplary tolerance, is crucial and impeccable. It is equally expected from all those fighting to gain votes.
And this time, an overconfident incumbent claims to have the desire to win an election in a fair and square manner, in a bid to claim the legitimacy to govern. It has proven to have potency in its clench on electoral campaigns in an unprecedented manner and seems to be doing so in an augmented manner. It tried hard to characterise its opponents as disorganised and incompetent to lead and ideologically confused, if not as people who have swallowed the rhetoric of neoliberalism without first digesting it. Its leaders wanted to frame the current election as a battle for the supremacy of revolutionary democracy against neoliberalism.
The voters’ verdict will have to be made next Sunday May 23, 2010.
Its opponents, although difficult to brand them for their varied colours and voices, have tried to show what they describe as a poor record of governance over the past 19 years. They describe its historical misdeeds in depriving the nation access to the sea, the growing number of the poor and citizens at risk of famine, the insufficient or absence of economic growth, and its failure to live by the laws of the land. Many of the opposition parties, claiming to have the credentials of liberalism, have pleaded to voters that the Revolutionary Democrats have had enough and should not be given another lease on life.
Whether or not this has sunk in will become obvious next week.
Nevertheless, the point is not so much about regretting the past as it is about learning from experience, both positive and negative.
Although the place pundits give the political process, before and in the aftermath of the 2005 National Elections, is a bit too generous, it nonetheless has a lot of lessons for any party with a remote interest in the Ethiopian political discourse. And hardly is there any other group more than the media with valuable lessons to learn from this historical turning point.
Electoral politics, like everywhere else in the world, but more so in highly polarised societies such as in Ethiopia, could be synonymous with a hair-raising horserace, where the excitement and flurry breaks loose once the whistle is blown.
Considering this and other factors, problems could arise if the losing parties, whether the incumbent or its rivals, try to abandon legal paths and resort to extralegal measures, taking the phrase “by any means necessary” literally. This might disrupt public law and order, which would certainly be the end of the election honeymoon. What would follow is too hard to contemplate or ugly to imagine.
It is very crucial for the electorate and all parties to be emotionally and psychologically ready to accept the final results of the election, whatever they will be. All parties face a historic responsibility to set a clear and historic precedence for yet another election to come in the future by looking beyond temporary partisan gains and losses.
The losers of today might turn out to be the winners of tomorrow. But there will have to be that tomorrow not haunted by its ugly past. At this particular time, contending parties should worry about the legacy they should be leaving behind and passing onto the next generation.
Such a realisation will definitely give hope to the members of the Ethiopian electorate.