Free, Fair Election, but also Peaceful

Feb 22 , 2020

The constitutional mandate of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his administration will end when the term of current parliament members expires later this year. The party or coalition of parties that wins a majority of seats in the upcoming election will form a government at the end of September 2020 and lead the country for a term of five years. The current administration will remain in power until a new government is formed.

The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), which is newly structured as part of the reform process, has announced that the upcoming national election will be held on August 29, 2020.  The schedule is apparently aimed at meeting the constitutional requirement as well as avoiding a constitutional crisis. However, the prospect of Ethiopia holding an election free of violence seems highly unlikely.

National elections in Ethiopia were commonly held in May. This is because the constitution requires an election to be held a month before the MPs' term expires. The postponement of the traditional date was likely a result of how all election-related preparations were well behind schedule to conduct this year’s election in May.

Initially, the national election was tentatively scheduled to be held on August 16, 2020. In a forum organised by the Board to discuss the tentative schedule, many political parties expressed their concern about the logistical feasibility of conducting an election in the peak of a rainy season. The national election was finally pushed another 13 days and now will be held on August 29, 2020.

The Board was not able to make any further adjustments as requested by political parties. It is evident that the institution is neither prepared to hold an election in May nor able to push the date beyond August for constitutional reasons. The dilemma that the Board finds itself in is understandable.

On the bright side, international partners are providing unprecedented financial support for the Board to hold a free, fair and peaceful election. The support will help the Board build its institutional capacity to hold the election. Ensuring the neutrality and strengthening the capacity of the Board is indeed an essential step to hold a free and peaceful election. However, the Board alone cannot guarantee this, no matter how well it is prepared. Holding a peaceful election is a collective endeavour of all political actors.

The government should in advance ask itself whether it is prepared to lead Ethiopia through what will be the most contested election in Ethiopian history. The continuity and stability of the Ethiopian state will be at stake in the upcoming Ethiopian election unless the government is able and willing to ensure the rule of law.

The response of Abiy’s administration to the recurring security crises has often been inadequate. Lacking the institutional capacity to ensure the rule of law, it will be a grave mistake if the government thinks it can address election-related violence with the exiting level of preparedness and political commitment.

Maintaining the rule of law is the primary responsibility of the government. It has a duty not only to respect the law but also to ensure that other non-state actors respect it. To fulfill its responsibility and to ensure the rule of law before, during and after the election, governments, both at the federal and state level, should evaluate and strengthen their law enforcement capacity. Training should be given to law enforcement officers to strengthen their capacity and ensure their neutrality.

Holding a peaceful election is also partly a responsibility that falls on the shoulders of the opposition. Following the opening up of the political space, many exiled opposition political groups have returned to the country. While this was crucial to the democratisation process, their role has fueled political polarisation instead of serving any other purpose. Political parties, including the ruling party, should desist from anything that will further polarise society and plunge the country into further violence if they really believe in a democratic transition.

The meaning of the upcoming election to the Ethiopian democratic process is huge. Ensuring a democratic and peaceful transition in Ethiopia is not the responsibility of a single actor. The National Election Board, the government, political parties and all other stakeholders have a historic responsibility to ensure a peaceful, fair and free election will be held in Ethiopia.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 22,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1034]

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