By Dawit Endeshaw/Addis Fortune
As polling stations around the country have opened for registration of the electorate on January 9, 2015, opposition political parties are expressing their discomfort on the pre-election process.
Teferi Mekuria is among 33 million voters projected by the electorate board for the upcoming election. Fortune met with him while he was registering to vote at his nearby polling station. He was the 29th voter registered at Woreda 7 of Arada District at three o’clock on the very first day. The station is among three polling stations located at the former Kebele 13/14 office. According to the statement from Tsege Alemu, a registrar at the station, they are responsible for registering electorate at the specific Kebele and residents from house number 001 to 299 and operates seven days a week from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm.
Each polling station around the country is structured in a way that each station is only allowed to register a maximum number of 1,000 electorates and the arrangement has been made based on this parameter.
According to the data obtained from National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), the Board has allocated 44,454 polling stations, with 222,270 public observers and 547 constituencies with 1,935 election officials. As far as regional distribution is concerned, Oromia regional state has the largest number of polling stations, public observers and election officials with 15,501, 77,501 and 537, respectively. At the other extreme, there is Harari, with 140 polling stations, 700 public observers and six election officials. Whereas Addis Abeba has 1,523 polling stations with 7,615 public observers, and 69 election officials.
However, despite this preliminary activity surrounding the election, opposition political parties are not happy about the way the pre-election process is being conducted, contrary to the argument by the incumbent party. The ruling party argued that process prior to the electorate registration, such as election of both public observers and election officials followed the right procedures under the law. The election was fair and free of any misconduct, said Desta Tesfaw, head of public relations office of EPRDF. He denied allegations by the opposition that the elected public observers were affiliated with the EPRDF.
Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia, a.k.a. Medrek, is among those that criticize the legitimacy as well as the trustworthiness of NEBE, the body responsible for regulating and administrating all elections at the national, regional and local levels.
The election of public observers was not publicized to the public so that the public could vote, said Merera Gudina (PhD), head of external affairs of Medrek and a lecturer at the department of Political Science and International Relations Addis Abeba University. His party was not formally invited, he said, although there was media announcement that parties could observe the election process.
He emphasized that those elected observers are directly allied with the ruling party and there is nothing improved by the board regarding the process of the election. Rather, it is becoming worse and the independence and credibility of the board is within a question mark.
“EPRDF is conspiring to act as both the player and the referee of the game,” added Merera.
The party, through its president Prof. Beyene Petros (PhD), had called a press conference to call for the repeat of the election of the public observers last week. Medrek is now preparing to select its candidates who run for the upcoming election.
Established in 2008, Medrek was the only opposition political party that was able to secure one seat in the Parliament during the 2010 general election. The party is a coalition of four opposition political parties: the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM), Union of Tigreans for Democracy & Sovereignty a.k.a Arena and the Southern Ethiopia People’s Democratic Union.
Having the same discontent as Medrek, Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) argued that the election of public observers was not free and fair. In addition, the party raised questions on the financial capacity of the board to facilitate the election saying donors like the EU are not willing to support the election.
The party specifically mentions elections of public observers held in Northern Shoa, Debere Sina as an example that the members of EPRDF orchestrated the election.
While claiming the pre-election process have problems, UDJ seems to be busy fixing internal problems. In relation to this, the party is accusing NEBE, saying the board is conspiring to push UDJ out of the election battle.
This accusation came after the board announcement that the election of UDJ president held on October 12, 2014, replacing Gizachew Shiferaw (Eng) by Belay Fekadu, was illegal as it was against the party’s bylaws and Revised Political Parties’ Registration Proclamation.
The decision by the board has the intention of removing the party from the election, said Girma Seifu, during a press brief held at the party’s headquarters on January 9, 2015. He is the only opposition party member who had a seat at the parliament as a member of Medrek. Girma is the current vice president of UDJ. However, following this announcement by the board, the party is expected to conduct the re-election of the president for today.
Having considered the interest of the general public and taken the process of democratization into consideration, the board has decided to give UDJ a second chance; and in accordance with this, we expect the party to settle its internal problem by January 12, 2015, said Merga Bekana (Prof), chairman of the board, during a press conference on January 4, 2015.
Another opposition party is Semayawi (literally translated: blue), a newcomer in the political scene of the country. The party, in confrontation with the board since the launch of the election process, shares the sentiment by the above opposition political parties.
The party argued that the election of public observers was full of mischief and the independency of those elected observers has got a problem. Moreover, the parties strongly criticize the financing system of the board and as a reflection of this discontent, Semayawi party was not a part of a discussion held between NEBE and other political parties.
In some parts of the country, public observers that were not physically present were elected, according to Yonatan Tesfaye, public relations officer of Semayawi. Such symptoms can be an indication that the election would not bring a significant change.
However, the board rejects such claims, saying, “they are not based on the actual facts and lack concrete evidence.”
There has not been a single party that submitted its discontent to the board, said Demssie Benti, head of public relations office at NEBE.
The Semayawi party is organizing a campaign under the slogan Freedom for Fair Election in collaboration with eight other opposition political parties. The party wants to use the opportunity to forward demands on widening the political space and in general to follow up the process of the election. The party could withdraw from the election if this campaign fails to achieve its target and if the party faces “unpleasant conditions in the process, withdrawing from the election is a political strategy the party is considering.
According to the announcement made on January 9, 2015, the board condemned Semayawi for falsely accusing and trying to disrupt meetings held between parties and the board and acting against laws that are supposed to be respected. For this reason, the board has requested the party to submit its formal written apology by January 12, 2015.
The Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) shares the view that there were problems with the election of public observers, arguing that the public was not fully made aware of the process.
The party was known for its prominent role during the 2005 election under the leadership of Lidetu Ayalew as a member of Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD).
Common for all, despite claims and counter claims forwarded, these parties are saying they are preparing themselves to select candidates who will run for the upcoming election. Since then, the electorate is left with six weeks to register as voters and when there remain five days before the closing of the registration, election campaign by political parties will begin. Election Day is scheduled for May 24, 2015.