Ethiopia is bracing for a potential constitutional crisis...

Apr 4 , 2020

Ethiopia is bracing for a potential constitutional crisis. Birtukan Mideksa, chief of the National Electoral Board, announced earlier in the week that her agency will find it challenging to stick to the already delayed schedule of conducting national elections in August 2020.

A few days after the first Coronavirus case was reported in Ethiopia on March 12, panic and fear ensued in the headquarters of the Board, located off Africa Avenue (Bole Road). A foreign national employed to work for the Board was thought to have contracted the virus, compelling Birtukan to instruct the Board staff to work from home. Luckily, the result turned out to be negative, offering an air of relief for many working there.

But the alarm was strong enough to force her to call a meeting with leaders of the incumbent party in the same week to discuss the prospect of the upcoming elections, gossip disclosed. Birtukan did the same with some of the opposition leaders, brandishing the idea that the polls could be postponed, according to gossip.

Ethiopia's Constitution has a handicap when it comes to circumstances governing the postponement of national elections. Its framers had overlooked a crucial element in outlining the rare occurrences in human-made or natural disaster, making it impossible to carry on with elections business. They seemed to have taken for granted that elections would be held every five years; no matter what.

Come October 2020, the month legislators of both houses at the federal level and regional councils across the country take their last salaries, they will have their terms expire. The executive bodies and the Prime Minister, as well as presidents these houses installed, will have no legitimacy to govern any longer. Neither have the legislators the mandate to extend their lease of life.

Birtukan`s decision not to remain faithful to her original schedule will no doubt be consequential to the already fragile political landscape. So have leaders of opposition parties from the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) led by Merrera Gudina (Prof.) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), led by Daoud Ebsa, opposed the unilateral decision she made, in the absence of an expressed consent from the broader political establishment. Not only do they want to see consensus reached before the decision, but they would also want to negotiate the political arrangement to be adopted between November and the time elections will be conducted.

Birtukan has written a letter to the incumbent Prosperity Party (PP), expressing the Board's precarious position to hold elections in such times of “social distancing,” gossip disclosed. Unlike what many in the opposition have come to believe, Prosperitians are not in favour of seeing the elections scheduled for August postponed, revealed gossip. They do not see eye to eye with Birtukan on this, says gossip. They instead believe the current situation with the level of threat in the spread of the Coronavirus does not warrant such a drastic decision in the same way they are reluctant to accept full lockdown of the country is the appropriate response, claims gossip.

A final agreement has yet to be reached whether or not to postpone the elections, gossip claims. Prosperitians have informed Birtukan and her team that an assessment has to be made on the extent of Coronavirus spread a month later, gossip disclosed. The outcomes of this assessment will determine what course of action the administration will be taking in relation to the elections, gossip revealed.

But neither the Board nor the incumbent party can make a decision when it comes to electioneering. After all, the final say on what to do with polling dates lies with the parliament. That is, indeed, if Abiy Ahmed, chairman of the incumbent party and prime minister of the country, uses a never-invoked provision in the Constitution to dissolve parliament and call elections in six months. That too requires consent from parliament.

PUBLISHED ON Apr 04,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1040]

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