By Kiya Tesfaye
Since the adoption of the new Constitution in 1995, Ethiopia has organized 4 elections carried out regularly ever 5 years (in 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010); the ruling party, TPLF, claimed victories in all of these elections. Unfortunately, post-election reports always show that none of the elections in Ethiopia has so far been free, fair and democratic.
Through intimidation by local cadres, or by withholding basic government rations from rural and urban poor households, people had been forced to vote for TPLF. Through such controversial elections, TPLF had claimed victories over the majority of the votes. In some places, where the TPLF had been unable to win, stealing the ballot cards had been the case. Election frauds, reactions of the opposition parties to the unfair elections, and anger of the public had been the main reasons to see instabilities, chaos, mass arrests, deaths, harassment and disorders in the aftermaths of election periods. Therefore, due to the undemocratic nature of these elections, dissenting political parties had been unable to win over the dictatorial TPLF regime – which indirectly means that people can’t change their leaders through the ballot box in Ethiopia.
In absence of free and fair election, the election itself can’t be a means to justify the legitimacy of a given government. Thus, the 2015 election will not be different from the past. According to the National Electoral Board, nearly 35 million people had registered to vote, and 60 opposition parties had registered to run for parliamentary polls dated for May 24, 2015.
Having seen the previous elections in Ethiopia, what will we expect from the upcoming 2015 election? I have a firm belief that the upcoming election will not be any different from the previous ones unless otherwise the opposition parties can make miracles helped through the divine power. Given the totalitarian nature of TPLF, no one in Ethiopia votes for the opposition parties to win the election and form a government, but instead people vote for dissenting parties only to have some seats in the TPLF-dominated Parliament.
In meantime, it is important to remind that it is not due to lack of alternative policies that opposition parties fail to win an election in Ethiopia. The major reasons why opposition parties are unable to win elections in Ethiopia are due to the fact that they are mired in multiple challenges, unlike the ruling party. I will briefly discuss these challenges below.
Major Challenges of Opposition Parties in Ethiopia
1. ABSENCE OF FREEDOM OF MEDIA
In the absence of independent media outlets, it is almost impossible to hold free and fair elections. Unfortunately, Ethiopia, under the TPLF government, is not a friendly home for independent media. The government in Ethiopia is best known for its systematic repression of the very few independent media outlets. Especially after the Anti-Terrorist Proclamation of 2009, independent media have been subjected to intimidation, harassment, and in most cases, exile. You can hardly find a single independent, non-state affiliated media outlet in Ethiopia today. The majority of newspapers, and radio and television stations are state controlled or state affiliated. The very few pseudo-independent media, which in some cases are accused of being state-affiliated behind the screen, are also subject to strict procedures of state censorship. The main radio and television stations, which are run by the state, are usually seen broadcasting the propaganda of the TPLF regime and promote government policies; and in contrary, they have no room to broadcast the human rights violations and corruptions of the dictatorial administration of the ruling party.
Since more than 85% of the population in Ethiopia resides in rural areas, radio is the only medium of news, and hence, this gives the ruling party a significant advantage in promoting its policies and preserving itself as the irreplaceable political party by controlling the radio access to the rural population. Journalists of local media outlets, which deviate from state censorship of the government, usually face arrests, harassment, shutdowns and/or exile.
The only media opportunities available for the local opposition parties are Diaspora-based media. Usually, most of these websites are blocked and cannot be accessed in Ethiopia while popular stations like OMN [Oromia Media Network] are jammed by the government in Ethiopia. It is clear that media can have huge impacts to the mind of a society. Due to the fear of the power of media, TPLF has been denying media access to opposition parties, and at the same time, restricting the blossoming of independent media in the country – forcing opposition parties to rely on Diaspora-based media outlets.
The case for Oromo media is even worst. Being the largest nation, Oromo lacks access to media in Afan Oromo, which is the largest language spoken in the Horn of Africa; it is safe to to say that there is no single Afan Oromo media outlet in Ethiopia. Due to the fear of the government for independent Oromo media, Oromo political organizations suffer from the absence of freedom of media, more than others.
2. ABSENCE OF A NEUTRAL ELECTORAL BOARD
The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, which is theoretically supposed to be an autonomous and independent body, has been accused of being the mouthpiece of the ruling party. The Election Board, which consists of nine individuals strategically nominated by the late Prime Minister, has been the major reason for the lack of fair and free elections in Ethiopia.
Dr. Merga Bekana (Chairman) and Dr. Addisu Gebre-Egziabher (Deputy Chairman) are key figures in the Board that is accused of working for the interest of TPLF. The latter, Dr. Addisu, who is currently working as a Head of a Department in the Ministry of Federal Affairs and a close friend for members of the TPLF Central Committee, is purposely assigned in the Board to protect the interest of TPLF. The Election Board has also been accused of interfering in the internal affairs of opposition parties, and putting complicated procedures and criteria for opposition parties with the goal of expelling them from election runs when found not abiding with these complicated election procedures and criteria.
3. The NON-NEUTRALITY OF THE MILITARY
What has enabled the TPLF regime to brutally rule the country for more than two decades is not its ability to create a robust and democratic political, social and economic environment. The strength of TPLF is its military. The military, which is almost dominated by one nation, the Tigreans, from which the TPLF ruling party officials also come, has been the backbone to the dictatorial regime of TPLF. Basically, a military is responsible to maintain peace, uphold constitutional orders and protect the territorial sovereignty of the country. But, in the case in Ethiopia, the TPLF government has been usually criticized for using the military for spying, intimidating and arresting opposition party individuals. It is not uncommon to hear accusations from dissenting political parties about being spied upon and about their everyday activities being tracked by the military intelligence services, and in some cases, about physical obstacles put on their ways during election campaigns.
THE CASE OF LEENCO LATA’S ODF
Having seen the three major challenges of opposition parties in Ethiopia, ODF [Oromo Democratic Front] will never be an exception to not be mired in these aforementioned challenges, had its move to Ethiopia turned long lasting. ODF’s 24-hour stay in the country, after all, is a witness to what this article wants to address. Members of ODF are prominent politicians with ample experiences in Oromo and Ethiopian politics, and had been pioneers of the Oromo struggle for freedom, and hence, they can have the possibility to make positive impacts on the political atmosphere in Ethiopia. However, that is not what the government in Ethiopia wants at all. Although the government claims to have established a multiparty system to convince donor countries, that remains true only in books; especially, chasing away exiled politicians who had come back home for a peaceful political struggle, has proven the multiparty system in Ethiopia fake and nonexistent.
The above challenges of opposition parties deliver one clear message to outsiders who observe politics in Ethiopia. That is, the totalitarian nature of the TPLF regime. Despite holding regular elections every 5 years – visually appealing rituals for the international community, the TPLF regime wants to rule the country eternally and brutally by using brute-force. Period.
Kiya Tesfaye is an Oromo activist and lives in Norway; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org