Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Some comments on the elections in Ethiopia

Following is my response to several questions about Ethiopia's elections from an Ethiopian journalist who opposes the EPRDF and now lives in the United States:

The official response from the Obama administration on the elections in Ethiopia was surprisingly blunt. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, told a House of Representatives panel on May 25 that while the elections were peaceful, they "were not up to international standards." Going forward, he said the United States would continue to press the EPRDF to make democratic changes, but not at the price of endangering relations. He described Ethiopia as a "crucial ally."

The May 25 statement out of the White House by Mike Hammer, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, also commended Ethiopia for its civic participation and peaceful voting. He then commented that the elections "fell short of international commitments" and added that an environment conducive to free and fair elections was not in place before election day. He added that Ethiopia and the United States share a number of important interests, but left unsaid that Ethiopia is a crucial ally.

The statements coming out of Washington on the quality of the elections are similar to those from the European Union chief election observer, Thijs Berman, who said the various shortcomings leading up to the elections resulted in a process that fell short "of certain international principles, certain international commitments."

Before the elections, I thought they would look this year something about midway between the pattern of 1995 and 2000, on the one hand, and 2005, on the other. In fact, they seem to be closer to the 1995 and 2000 model.

As in those earlier elections, the playing field was far from level. On the other hand, the EPRDF took these elections seriously, and it is not clear that the opposition did so. In 2005, I had the impression that many Ethiopians were voting against the EPRDF rather than voting for the opposition parties. This time, the EPRDF had more procedural and material advantages and worked harder at winning. The opposition parties, which admittedly have many institutional disadvantages, did not seem to work as hard this year. The apparent result is a somewhat bigger win for the EPRDF than I had thought would be the case.

What does all of this mean for the future?

In my humble opinion, it means the EPRDF between now and the elections in 2015 needs to open far more political space for opposition parties. It also means the opposition must do a much better job than it did in 2010. There are too many parties, too much divisiveness, too little commitment and still not enough focus on policy differences with the EPRDF, although the opposition parties did much better on this score in 2010 than in previous elections.

Image: PM Meles campaign poster (EPRDF). Creative commons licensed Flickr content by BBC World Service.

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