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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The rulers of Ethiopia have never failed to acknowledge that ultimate sovereign power belongs to the people of Ethiopia whenever elections are impending.
However, political parties invariably play a more prominent role than the electorate in the electoral process. Though political parties enjoy public support, albeit at varying degrees, the bickering and mud-slinging they engage in always drowns out the voice of the most decisive actor in the whole process—the public. 
The state of a country’s political space is a critically important factor in the building of a democratic system. When the space is permissive, it allows all political parties to operate freely and enables voters to exercise their right to choose their; this will render elections a genuine expression of the will of the people. On the contrary, elections will be meaningless if the space is so restrictive as to deny voters of viable alternatives from which they can choose. 
Ethiopia has conducted four controversy-ridden general elections in the past twenty years and is preparing to hold the fifth edition in May of this year. Starting with the selection of election observers from among the ranks of the public to candidates and voter registration, election campaigning, voting and the announcement of election results, the entire election cycle has been fraught with controversies and disputes which have resulted in large-scale death, injury and incarceration.
The upcoming elections are no different with the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and opposition parties are at loggerheads over the impartiality of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) and other issues. Opposition parties complain that owing to the harassment of the EPRDF and NEBE, the political space is so suffocating that they are unable to function with freedom. Naturally, the EPRDF and NEBE refute the accusation. It is difficult to conduct elections in the backdrop of such animosity and irreconcilable discord. 
Ever since the concept of representative democracy took root in the 17th century, it has been mainly implemented through elections. The application of representative democracy is not limited to establishing a government alone, however; it is also used to elect the governing body of private corporations, civil society organizations and other forms of associations. That is why elections are the generally accepted means by which the representatives of the majority are elected and assume office. Needless to say, an even playing field is essential if elections are to be free, peaceful, democratic and credible.
The recently escalating tension between the prominent opposition parties and the NEBE needs to be toned down. Without compromising its integrity and neutrality, the board must be ready to work in close consultation with the parties if it is it is committed to making the May elections free and fair. Aside from responding to their legitimate complaints, it has to protect them from the obstacles which are liable to impact negatively their electioneering campaign. Such constructive interaction between the various election actors can help make elections free, fair, peaceful and credible. Towards this end, the NEBE owes the obligation to enforce scrupulously all election-related legislations and protocols and refrain from uttering that it is prepared to display “magnanimity” when dealing with some political parties regarding issues on which it does not see eye-to-eye with them. 
As the EPRDF holds the reins of power, the problems that have rolled over from previous elections will be exacerbated unless it does not make the best use of its office to ensure that the coming elections are successful. In this regard it is incumbent upon it, among others, to consider itself as just one contesting party, to see to it that the army and security forces maintain impartiality as the constitution dictates, to abstain from utilizing state and public resources for election campaigning as well as to resist the urge to emasculate the opposition. It would be an embarrassment if one party were to win all seats in a country where a diversity of views and sentiments exist; it would render elections pointless and is a sure sign of backwardness.
If there is a sincere desire to open up the political space in Ethiopia all institutions of democracy must be free from any interference. Though it’s too early for these institutions to be absolutely independent, they should be assisted in discharging their responsibilities impartially. The government must also facilitate the conditions which allow the media to cover the elections in unbiased manner. Even if the need for such support is theoretically acknowledged, the fact that it has not been put into practice continues to pose challenges for the election process. This is one crucial reason why the political space needs to be more accommodating.
One of the testing challenges that cast shadows over elections is the absence or weak state of rule of law. It is for this very reason that elections carried out in many developing countries are deemed not to be up to international standards. It is impossible to think of free and fair elections without the rule of law. The rule of law is an essential ingredient which is vital to ensure that there is an even playing field and all contesting parties abide by the rules of the game as set out by the constitution and other subsidiary legislations. 
It is not the EPRDF which alone is responsible for constraining the political space, though; opposition parties also share the blame. If they are to contribute their share to broadening the political space, they have to conduct a critical self-assessment on the areas on which they are found to be wanting: organizational strength, collaborating with peers, sensitizing the public about their program, internal democracy, unity of purpose and solidarity, etc. Sadly, they are inclined to externalize their weaknesses and point the finger at the ruling party while lacking the willingness to forge a united front in order to counter strategically the ploys of the ruling party, diaspora financiers and other protagonists. In other words, they are not up to making the necessary sacrifice to play a telling role in broadening the political space. Some opposition parties bristle when their flaws are pointed out to them. If they are serious about mounting an effective political struggle which helps them achieve their political objectives, they need to realize that they are not perfect and learn to take constructive criticism in their stride. Otherwise, they will continue to be a part of the problem and not of the solution.
Everything possible must be done to ensure the May elections are free, fair, peaceful and credible. The sovereignty of the people of Ethiopia as manifested by the exercise of the right to elect their representatives should be deferred to. Given that elections are a fundamental requirement in the democratization process, the upcoming elections need to give expression to the aspirations and hopes of Ethiopians. Inasmuch as the vote of the electorate has to be respected because it is the wellspring of power, all stakeholders are obliged to desist from inflaming tension and to see to it that the election process is blemishless. This is precisely why care must be taken to make sure that the political space is not constricted.

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