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Can Ethiopia Afford to Hold Elections in 2020?

Can Ethiopia Afford to Hold Elections in 2020?

Teshome Beyene Berhe 4-22-19

The biggest challenge for Dr Abiy and his team to tackle is the fact that they have to constantly ensure legitimacy of ruling the country. The intriguing question as to where that legitimacy comes from going forward? Is it from EPRDF’s ‘election’ of 2015 to the assemblies? Is it from the popular protest of 2017 and 2018, which directly or indirectly caused the ascent of Dr Abiy and Co to power?

I believe that legitimacy does not come from EPRDF’s ‘election’ of 2015. The reason for that being EPRDF’s 100% ‘sweep’ to all legislative bodies during the 5th election is considered to be full of make-believes and a sham.  Regarding the popular protest, it may have lent legitimacy for a start, but it does not guarantee continued legitimacy. It must be supported by genuine election. In the absence of the two sources of legitimacy, where does legitimacy to rule come from? In the short run, it should emanate from two co-existing factors; performance legitimacy and concrete steps for free and fair election.

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Performance legitimacy refers to the conviction of citizens that the regime or government is delivering well, and, for that reason, should be given more chance to stay in power. It is what the EPRDF was enjoying since around 2007 because of fast economic growth and its successful work on alleviation of poverty. Unfortunately, the current EPRDF government is not enjoying performance legitimacy. Chiefly, the economy is not performing well, and it is a fact for everyone to witness.

As far as Dr Abiy’s promise for free and fair election is concerned, it is already challenged by the raging conflict and tension. Even if one entertains a cynic view that lack of peace is the government's own making, free and fair election requires special pre-conditions; a massive preparation to correct past disorders and the establishment of the necessary infrastructure for election.

Where continued legitimacy is to be questioned and there is a great difficulty to hold elections, what is the future for politics in Ethiopia?  The logical recommendation would have been for a transitional government to be formed. But, how would the different political actors in the country agree to work together and establish a transitional government in such a short period of time? Besides, will they be able to achieve that given the complexities associated with running a transitional government and the inexperience of these parties? That is really a tall order.

What is the way out of this predicament? I believe all parties should hold continuous and genuine dialogue to agree to extend election date by a certain period of time; let us by a year or two. That extra time should help build trust, reduce hostilities to a minimum, establish the necessary infrastructure for election, and also undertake the much-sought national census. By the way, trying to run election, in a hurried manner and without preparation, will only aggravate the existing conflict and throw us into further turmoil. Such a situation has been seen time and again in many African countries. In fact, many countries are better off not having elections than having it. Elections in many African countries leave in their trails considerable agony, displacement and death.

Some pundits and politicians are heard citing the country’s Constitution as an overriding reason for why election must take place in 2020. Genuinely speaking, the Constitution has been violated many times; and a good number of its provisions have been disregarded. But, why should these people be so ‘loyal’ to the Constitution when it comes to election, if not for some self-serving reason? I would like to cite two recent examples of clear violation or disregard of the provisions of the Constitution.

According to article 103 (5) of the Constitution, “A national population census shall be conducted every ten years…”.  However, the conduct of the fourth national census is overdue, the last one being over ten years already. As we all recall, the last rounds of preparation for the national census were cancelled a couple of months ago. Another example is the declaration of the state of emergency. There is a clear requirement of the Constitution that a decision made to implement state of emergency by the executive organ shall be submitted to the House of Representatives within 48 hours (article 93-2). The declaration of the Cabinet of Ministers to introduce state of emergency in 2018 was tabled to the parliament after 15 days of its adoption. I can give more examples to buttress my point, but it will be an over-kill.

Let us assume we want to strictly abide by the Constitution, and election dates should be changed only if the Constitution allows it. In this case, can’t we revise the Constitution? The answer is ‘Yes We Can’. The requirement to amend the particular provision on election is found in article 105(2). Accordingly, as long as two-thirds majority vote of both houses in joint session, and at least two-thirds of the Councils of the regional states approve it by a majority vote, the provision on election can be amended. This is not an impossible task to start with. The government of Dr Abiy is, therefore, better advised to move in a motion of amendment of the Constitution to give the House of Representatives the right to extend election period by a certain number of months or years as seen appropriate. For that matter, this kind of provision is not unknown in other Constitutions. The gist of the argument is that a Constitution must be useful and practicable, for otherwise it will bring more harm than benefit.

I hasten to add though that, in parallel to prolonging the election date, the EPRDF government, under Dr Abiy, must clearly spell out a road map and, within it, critical milestones for the economy and politics of the country; a road map that the predominant majority of political actors buy into.

To conclude, the current government can’t continue to rule without giving the right answers to when and how it plans to hold elections in the future. Whatever the answers are, I presume Ethiopia cannot afford to hold elections in 2020 for the reason cited above.


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