Election Day can be an inspiring moment for a country, permitting the display of democracy. But on May 23, 2010 there was a marked absence of hope and exhilaration at polling stations across Ethiopia. In the fourth general elections staged in this landlocked nation on the horn of Africa under the provisions of the current constitution, the incumbent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and his political party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) were the expected victors. With 547 parliamentary seats up for contention, EPRDF and its allies claimed to have won all but two seats in a landslide victory. The National Election Board of Ethiopia reported a record turnout as high as 90 percent. Leading opposition parties such as the Forum for Justice and Democratic Dialogue (also known as Medrek) and the All Ethiopia Unity Party have rejected the legitimacy of the results.
The question of fairness and the issue of fraud tainted the pre-election environment as the Ethiopian government clamped down on dissent – closing down newspapers, jamming Voice of America broadcasts, blocking websites and banning opposition party rallies. Political space was further narrowed by limitations placed on election observers. In a phone interview with Bloomberg News on June 2, Merara Gudina, a leading figure within Medrek, stated that around a thousand opposition activists were jailed in the country’s Oromiya region on the eve of the vote while many more were subject to intimidation and beatings.
Violence continues to be associated with elections in Ethiopia. When Ethiopians held their third general elections in May 2005, Meles, the Prime Minister and member of the ruling party (EPRDF) claimed victory prior to the completion of vote count, thus sparking a wave of violence. Protest rallies engulfed the capital Addis Ababa and turned bloody when the government unleashed its security forces, which opened fire and killed nearly 200 civilians, injured hundreds, and detained thousands. Opposition leaders were rounded up, imprisoned and charged with inciting violence and treason.
In relative terms, post-election violence has been minimal this time around. Nevertheless, the opposition parties have reported that hundreds have been beaten and arrested. Eight members were wounded by knives in the Western Shoa and Arsi Zones while two have been killed. The government has confirmed that one was shot trying to steal a ballot box.
The opposition leaders have opted to dispute the outcome of the 2010 elections by calling for a re-run and are considering filing a complaint in court. They are challenging its credibility, especially outraged by the 99.6 percent victory margin claimed by Prime Minister Meles. They also are highlighting the distortion of democracy and lack of freedom by citing examples of the government’s use of public media to disseminate propaganda and misleading information and police brutality against opposition party members and supporters. However, they are skeptical that justice will be served because both the election board and the judicial system are dominated by EPRDF members and supporters.
Amidst this controversy, international reaction has been mild. The United States Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, Johnnie Carson stated that the elections “were not up to international standards.” Likewise, the European Union agreed that the process favored the ruling party and shed light on the restrictions placed on international observers and acknowledged that irregularities such as double voting could have been undetected due to a lack of a national voting list. New York based Human Rights Watch issued a sharp rebuke by censuring pre-election practices saying that “the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it.”
Prime Minister Meles met this international criticism with hostility and argued that such foreign interference violates Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Moreover, he claimed that there was no evidence of election fraud and that in actuality the results are a clear reflection of the will of the Ethiopian people. Minister of Communication Bereket Simon went further to state that EPRDF is popular with the Ethiopian citizenry due to its stellar performance in economic growth, development and reducing poverty.
On May 25, EPRDF organized a well-choreographed rally of its supporters in the heart of Addis at Meskal Square in what it claimed was a unprompted show of anger at Human Rights Watch. However, this event’s spontaneity is highly questionable due to the meticulously orchestrated marches, professionally printed placards and finally the appearance of Prime Minister Meles. The climax of the occasion was reached when Meles addressed the crowd from a bulletproof glass box, turning the protest into a victory celebratory party.
The United States maintains a close relationship with Ethiopia as a chief donor, giving approximately $1 billion in aid on an annual basis and considers Ethiopia an important ally in its worldwide war on terror. As the supposed leader of the free world and torch-bearer of democracy, the US is in a position to advance these ideals, but is unfortunately associated with the authors of this injustice instead. Africa Faith and Justice Network believes that short-term calculations of US interests should not trump democracy and sends an urgent call to the Obama administration not to turn a blind eye toward the ongoing human rights violations in Ethiopia.
By Kerezhi Sebany
Wall Street Journal: Ethiopia’s Embarrassing Elections
Voice of America: Ethiopian Opposition Coalition Calls for New Vote
The Washington Times: Ethiopian Election Stirs Outrage at Ruling Party