Elections: Ethiopia versus California

By Yilma Bekele / May 11, 2010
It is election season in California. Two positions are open. The governorship and Federal Senate positions are up for grabs. Both parties, that is the Democrats and Republicans are going thru the primary process to nominate their strongest candidates for the November elections. November is Six months away but the contest is becoming hot.

Television and radio are the two preferred medias to reach the electorate. We are being inundated by sleek commercials costing millions of dollars. The candidates are spending their own money, their supporter’s money and their friend’s money as if it grows on trees. There is no such thing as ordinary elections. It is both art and a science. Nothing is left to chance. Commercials are prepared after a lengthy process of focus groups, pools, psychological impact, sociological studies and good old ‘makes me feel good’ assessments.

There have been lengthy debates between the contestants organized by independent groups. Free, vibrant and long debates on issues are standard. There is a media watch group checking all the facts thrown by the candidates. A small mistake can be their undoing, so they are very careful before they open their mouth. They avoid what is known as ‘foot in the mouth disease’. Supporters organize town hall meetings, neighborhood functions and public rallies to introduce their candidate. Fans put signs on their front lawn, windows, cars and every conceivable open space to advertise their preferences. They set up phone banks to call every voter, prepare mailers, use their email accounts and move heaven and earth to reach every last voter.

There is no such thing as government imposed ‘Election code of conduct’ on the candidates, journalists or the party’s. The local Police, State Police and the Federal police (FBI) are not part of the equation. The State has not yet threatened the candidates regarding their positions on issues and the possibilities of being charged for their frank opinions. The Governor has not warned the party’s regarding any wild intentions of withdrawal from the election. No one has offered to come and observe the election. The candidates have not requested observers either.

The candidates know that the voter is sovereign. They are no attempt to belittle the citizen or intimidate an opponent. It is not acceptable behavior. One-person one vote is the rule. It is not always perfect but there is no organized attempt to steal, cheat or exclude.

The voting in our neighborhood is conducted in a small church around the corner from our house. They have a roll of names from DMV, check your name and hand you a ballot. Ethiopians that have arrived a matter of six years ago and that have acquired US citizenship can vote. The only requirement is citizenship and age.

It is election season in Ethiopia too. Citizens are voting for membership in the Federal Parliament. The Party with the highest number of winners will form the next government. That is well and good, but as they say the ‘devil is in the details’. There are a few issues we have to clarify in this Kafkaesque process of election in Ethiopia. Kafkaesque is an apt description of what is billed as election. Here I am using the term to mean ‘intentional distortion of reality, senseless disorienting, often menacing complexity and a sense of impending danger’ by the one party state.

To begin with there is the ‘National Election Board of Ethiopia’ (NEBE) appointed by the ruling party. The members of this government body owe their allegiance to the party. Please see PM Meles’s interview with Stephen Sackur’s regarding the election board. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pY2NNOYKM8M) Their survival depends on the whims of the Prime Minster and his TPLF party Politburo (it is an old Soviet term to mean Central Committee of the ruling mafia group). It is alive and well in Ethiopia. There is also an ‘Election Code of Conduct’ proposed as (‘"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" kind) and a few ‘chosen’ ones signed the contract. The ‘code of conduct’ is an all-reaching agreement that controls the activities of the Party’s, the Media the Candidates and the air they breathe. It is entirely drawn by the ruling TPLF party and the TPLF appointed Judiciary is the final arbitrator of all issued raised. If the election is a football match this will be analogous to having the TPLF assign the referee, linesmen, the football rules and is in control of the stadium with its own security force.

There are over eighty political party’s registered by NEBE. All but less than five are organized by the ruling TPLF party. Most exist by name only to be activated on a need basis. They can field candidates recruited by the regime, accept state funds thru the ruling party and show up for make believe debates and official functions. They have assigned ‘leaders’ from their own ethnic group but TPLF cadres (mostly Tigrai) run the show from behind.

The fantasy created is so real that it puts real competition to shame. There are candidates but they cannot campaign, meetings are allowed but meeting venues are closed or owners of such places as hotel halls or parks are threatened by the state not to allow opposition activities. Candidates meetings with their constituents are discouraged by arresting and intimidating their supporters. Please read Dr. Negasso Gidada’s article (http://ethioforum.org/wp/archives/1451) Debates are held but since all parties are counted as real the opposition ends up with a fraction of the time. The opposition candidates have to be careful what they say in the heat of the debate since the Prime Minster have warned about the dangers of prosecution after the election.

The opposition cannot campaign in the Kilils due to fear of intimidation and the real danger of being beaten, jailed, and property like cars, video cameras damaged. Please see Dr. Merera’s report regarding his visit to Moyale. (http://www.voanews.com/horn/2010-05-05-voa3.cfm) The only exception seems to be in Tigrai due to the fact that the candidates were former members of the ruling party and seem to have clout in the military. It is ‘check mate’ situation in Tigrai. The rest of the Kilils are like the American ‘wild west’ where might is right.

Television and radio are the sole property of the TPLF party. The opposition is given the two minutes during debates that are also delayed for ‘editing’ purpose while the ruling party is allowed twenty-three hours and fifty minutes. The independent ‘print media’ has been decimated thus it does not play any significant role while make believe ‘independent’ newspapers are a few but loud.

Supporters of the opposition Party cannot campaign door to door, neither holds meetings in their own houses nor put up placards on their cars or front door. It will surely invite catastrophe and this fact is clear to all. The mere attempt of wearing T-shirts with the opposition name and picture is a criminal offense. The law to watch out regarding meetings is the new ‘terrorist’ law passed after the last election. Please see Human Rights Watch analysis of the law at (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/06/30/ethiopia-amend-draft-terror-law)

Election observers are members of the TPLF party and its junior affiliates. Foreign observers are a few in number and rendered ineffective by the ‘code of conduct’ that specifies no video, no picture and no interview in the pooling places. Ferenji philosophy is ‘I will not tell unless you complain’.

Suffice to say that the only thing the two elections have in common is the word ‘election’. In California the citizen is free to make his choice without undue pressure from anyone. In California the chances of electing the most capable person for the position is statistically high. In California the candidates have utilized every available media to let the citizen know their stand on issues. In California the Kilil and the Federal government have taken ‘hands off’ attitude and recognized the right of the citizen to make a decision based on his own conscience. In California the ‘candidates’ are not threatened with harm, their family and friends intimidated or stay up all night gripped with fear of what tomorrow might bring.

In Ethiopia the election is over before it started. For the opposition it is what is called as ‘fait accompli’ situation. That means it is over before you know what happened and it is not reverse able. As the sun will rise up from the East tomorrow morning TPLF (EPDRF) will have a majority in parliament, Ato Meles will be elected Prime Minister and more than ten million Ethiopians will wake up hungry with no prospects for a good lunch the day after the ‘democratic election’.

In this election over half of the country is closed to the opposition. There have been three reported incidents of candidates being murdered the last two months. The one Party State has been known to use lethal force on its citizens. It is a clear warning of what is to come. There are not enough brave souls that are foolish enough to tempt fate and stand for elections. In the Democratic Republic of Ethiopia the Chairman of the strongest opposition party is jailed on trumped up charges (Chairman Bertukan Mideksa). The logo of the opposition is awarded to an affiliate of the ruling party (CUDP logo to EDP). The name of the opposition party is handed to ‘hand picked’ leader (CUD to Ato Ayele Chamiso). Even the Chairman of an opposition party is removed from his position and a new one replaced by the NEBE (Dr. Merera and ONC). In Ethiopia the chances of electing the most capable person is nil, zero none.

Please note this not due the Ethiopian people being stupid and incapable. It is due to a lack of good governance. Election 2005 marks a watershed in our country’s history. It showed us that our people embrace the concept of good competition and fair election. The road to the elections were the most exiting, hopeful and a rebirth of the good old Ethiopian ‘free and proud’ mindset. The atmosphere was ripe with anticipation and people were filled with purpose and unity. That Ethiopian sense of ‘not trusting’ was hovering in the background but we choose to believe that a positive outcome was possible. What can I say the Nation was drunk with hope?

The ruling party sent all kinds of signals to show that it hasn’t changed. A few candidates were murdered and some beaten. We knew it was part of the ‘weaning process’ of a Party that was used to violence. You just can’t expect them to quit cold turkey. The PM raised the specter of ‘interhawme’. Alarms were raised and dismissed. Another hiccups we thought. The May rally at Meskel Square was our epiphany. At last we knew that we are good people that can unite for a great purpose. Please read Ato Debebe Eshetu’s article on Awramba Times (http://ethioforum.org/wp/archives/2086) Meskel Square showed that under the right conditions we are capable of rising above religion, ethnic affiliation and social class.

We come to the most important question now. Why participate in such a farce? The real answer is, it does not really matter much. Why discuss something that is insignificant in the great scheme of life. What is true is that a democratic election is a process of building a successful, growing and peaceful society. Those countries that hold democratic and free elections have a stable, peaceful and healthy society. Those that deny the basic right of their people suffer from civil war, insurrection and a miserable population always on the verge of catastrophe.

The Ethiopian election is not democratic. The Ethiopian Nation the TPLF leaders have built for the last eighteen years has not borne any fruit. It has only exacerbated the problems they inherited from the failed Junta dictatorship. The TPLF philosophy is not capable of growing the economy, creating real peace and having a happy, healthy and content population. The economic system of favoring an ethnic group to lord it over all others does not work. The idea of a single ruling party and ethnic group monopolizing both the military, and the business sector does not work. The concept of power emanating from above and treating the population as serfs does not work.

Thus electing some members from Medrek, some from AEUO, EDP and others is not a game changer. The problem is not the number of party's. The system itself is the problem. With the Ethiopian system the question is not a matter of fine-tuning it. It is a complete overhaul that is called for. Party's can go ahead participate to their hearts content, but remember other than creating employment for a few more individuals it is not going to make an iota of difference. And arguing whether to participate or not at this eleventh hour is only to create a distraction from the shameless act that is to follow. Just do not expect us to cry when you scream foul because Meles cheated or your behind is hauled to Kaliti for further schooling on the true nature of a dictatorial one party state. We promise not to say ‘we told you so!’ Furthermore, this business of bitching because you are not offered a solution is very lame. If someone tells you jumping from a cliff will kill you it doesn’t mean that not jumping will help you solve your problem. Telling you not to jump gives you another chance to contemplate, and to find a lasting solution that will prevent you from entertaining this crazy idea of trying to solve a fundamental problem by ending your life.


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