Ethiopian parliamentary elections held on May 24 passed without much international comment. Perhaps this was because of the predictability of the result. On May 27, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), the institution the government installed to organize and oversee the process, reported that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had won all the 422 seats—of a total of 547—to have been determined by counting at that time.
While unsurprising to most observers, the result certainly contradicted a statement from US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, a few weeks before the elections, that Ethiopia is “… is a democracy that is moving forward in an election that we expect to be free, fair, credible, and open and inclusive…Ethiopia has moved forward in strengthening its democracy every time there is an election. It gets better and better.”
The counting of the remaining 20% of votes from the election stalled after May 25, and at the time of writing it is still unclear why, even when making allowance for the remoteness of certain constituencies in this large country. The only official observers were those of the African Union, which does not have an established reputation for critical or in-depth evaluation in this area. On the basis of visits to 354 of 43,500 polling stations, the observers said the vote was “peaceful, calm, and credible.”
This seems an incomplete assessment at best. Opposition parties, for one, disagreed with the assertion. Although a number of them were represented in the election and tried to make their voices heard, coverage of their electoral campaigns were subdued in Ethiopia’s state-controlled media, and there were persistent incidents of arrests and harassment of their members. Few analysts agreed that the playing field was level.
Despite this, the voting process itself was well-organized and went relatively smoothly, with few incidents in and around polling booths. This was helped by the fact that the stations were heavily guarded by militia and police units across the country, in an intimidating manner. The authorities had prepared well for the event, leaving nothing to chance. In Ethiopia this is popularly referred to as “organizational operation,” a term inherited from the socialist regime that predated the EPRDF’s rise to power. It means that proceedings and desired outcomes are organized according to centralist policy. However, the voters, determined to avoid disturbances and violence, should also be given credit, perhaps more than government planning.
The relative silence of the international community in relation to the questionable Ethiopian electoral process—with Western aid and development donor countries to Ethiopia first and foremost— might indicate they don’t care as long as stability is maintained. In recent years, Ethiopia has had a relatively strong state and steady economic growth. Observing the turmoil in neighboring Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Eritrea, donor countries might be prepared to not press the point on Ethiopia’s levels of democracy or human rights. They might also be weary of the storms that followed the Arab Spring upheavals in the volatile Middle East and Northeast African regions.
Perhaps there is also a realization that the electoral process and democracy are often unconnected and there was no expectation of a representative result of the real wishes of the Ethiopian people. As we know from many authoritarian countries from the past, such as the Soviet Union, or the present, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, elections are often a formal exercise in providing superficial legitimacy. They often say little about the chances of political change or of the state of citizens’ social and political rights.
This certainly seems to be the case in Ethiopia. How else to explain that in the previous parliament there was only one opposition member out of a total of 547, or that the current counting is set to yield a similar result? Elections in Ethiopia are essentially a non-event—well-organized perhaps, but wholly predictable.
In the absence of democracy, the government has grounded its legitimacy in its developmental record. Growth in gross domestic product and progress against the United Nations Millennium Development Goals has been notable, and the EPRDF considers it reason enough for it to stay in power.
The other side of the equation is that there has never been serious national democratic debate about policies and policy alternatives on any issue; agendas are set and implemented as designed by the party. This has not always had optimal results, as the many local ethnic conflicts, the huge social-economic inequalities, regional disparities, environmental problems, and persistent and often distressing human rights issues in the country have shown.
Ethiopia’s development pathway has, in the past few decades, been crudely authoritarian, and overseen by a huge military and security machine. Opponents argue that its benefits would be greater and more conducive to stability if a more deliberative political course could be followed. But such reflections are not entertained by the EPRDF, which is now guaranteed of another five years in power, provided that it can keep a united front and can reinvent itself ideologically in the face of internal disagreements.
There are challenges posed by the tensions between the four, largely ethnic and regionally determined, constituent parts of the EPRDF. Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, a Southerner groomed by former prime minister Meles Zenawi—who died in August 2012—has long maintained continuity, but is being challenged on his record of the past two-and-a-half years by leading elements in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which is the most powerful of the four political groups in the EPRDF.
At this point in time a legitimate coalition government between the EPRDF and some key opposition parties—that enjoy major support behind the scenes—could help to develop a more shared national political and developmental agenda. But this will not soon happen, as it is beyond the political imagination of Ethiopian power-holders. It is not, however, likely to be beyond the imagination of the Ethiopian voting public, who has long had success with solving problems through accommodation and pragmatic co-existence on the daily local level.
As Ethiopia modernizes and a more educated public emerges—due to a strongly expanded school system, more global interactions, and an expansion of (largely social) media exposure to the outside world—the expectations are growing. I have personally noticed how the potential of the educated and dynamic younger generation of Ethiopians in both a socioeconomic and civic-political sense has been underestimated, and should be further tapped. This is visible in the economic sphere, with the development of a many young entrepreneurs, and in the cultural and media sphere, where writers, artists, bloggers, cultural activists, religious youth organizations, and more are becoming increasingly active.
If undemocratic elections and similar political restrictions thwart this potential, further growth and development in Ethiopia is likely to suffer, particularly in a context that focuses on more than GDP. Reform to increase political participation and public accountability will be critical. Donor countries have a major, albeit cautious, role to play in this, making use of the influence gained by providing a third or more of Ethiopia’s annual budget through loans and grants. The Ethiopian people are pleased with the economic gains they have made and have shown remarkable creativity and resilience, but remain waiting for a democratic dawn that will provide true dignity and freedom.
Jon Abbink is a Senior Researcher at the African Studies Centre, Leiden, and a Research Professor of African Studies at VU University, Amsterdam.