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Election Cancelation: a Double-Edged Sword for Ethiopia

Election Cancelation: a Double-Edged Sword for Ethiopia

The eagerly expected 2020 general and regional elections of Ethiopia have been indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Following the election’s cancellation- which if not for the pandemic was scheduled to take place in August- the issue has become a controversial topic.

Indeed, Ethiopia is not the only country that has moved its election because of COVID-19. Election postponement is happening all over the world. So far, 47 countries have canceled their election globally. Other than Ethiopia, six African countries including South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Gambia, Kenya and Tunisia have shunted their elections. Cameron, Mali and Guinea, though, have bucked the trend, opting to undertake their elections on schedule despite the spread of the contagion.  

Given the unique political context of Ethiopia and the turmoil it has been in over the past three years, should Ethiopia cancel its election?  Is it a wise decision? If not will it open the gate to the legitimization of an illegitimate and undemocratic government as some political groups say?

According to Yonatan Tesfaye, a political activist and former Blue Party official, the cancelation is an option-less decision.

“Taking into account the complacence of the society in observing precautionary measures, conducting the elections will amount to risking public health. Election by its nature requires wide-ranging activities demanding the participation of millions of people. Opposition parties should do campaigns. These things add pressure to the current crisis.  Even now there is much negligence on the part of the people in combating the outbreak,” says Yonatan.

Professor Beyene Petros, Chairman of the Ethiopian Social Democratic Party (ESDC), is of the same opinion.  The veteran politician argues the priority this time should be combating COVID-19, not holding elections.  

“As opposition party leaders we all have an obligation to the people. Canceling the election is compulsory,” says Beyene.

Except for few, most political parties in the country seem to have no resentment over the election postponement. National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) and Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZeMa) are some of the major political parties which supported the government’s decision to cancel the elections. 

“It should have been postponed. We have no question on the postponement as the situation with COVID-19 makes it risky to undertake election,” says NAMA public relations director Tewodros Hailemariam(PhD.) 

“The cancelation is a proper and wise decision,” says Eyob Mesafint, an EZeMA official.

On the contrary, a handful of political groups, particularly the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), insist that the elections must be held on the originally scheduled date. In a statement it gave the party’s Executive Committee has said postponing the election amounts to breaching the constitutional order and opens the door to an authoritarian rule, adding it decided that regional election would be held in spite of pandemic concerns. The decision came a day before Parliament voted to postpone the elections.

Academics and the leaders of different political parties have roundly criticized the TPLF’s decision to proceed with the regional elections and are suggesting that the federal government should take legal action.

Sisay Mengiste (PhD) is a law instructor in Addis Ababa University. Citing Article 50 of the constitution he argues regional states have no right to conduct elections and that this is a preserve of the federal government.   

“The executive committee’s decision is unconstitutional. In cases of violations and threats to the constitutional order, the federal government has the right to intervene. Hence, it ought to step in and take the appropriate measures to uphold the law,” Sisay says.

In remarks aired on May 7 Prime Minster Abi Ahmed (PhD) also warned that his government will not tolerate anyone subverting the constitutional order.    

Even though most parties are in accord on the postponement of the elections, controversy is still brewing over what to do going forward. The heated debate is pitting those which advocate for alternatives under the framework of the constitution against groups calling for a political solution. 

The government proposed four options on how to fill the vacuum that ensues due to the expiry of its term expires in early October of this year without holding elections: dissolving Parliament, extending the state of emergency currently in force, constitutional interpretation and amendment of the constitution. Of the four options Parliament approved the path of constitutional interpretation.  

Some opposition parties, however, are opting for the other alternatives. EZeMA, for instance, prefers constitutional amendment. It believes amending Article 58(3) of the constitution, which lays down the duration of the term of Parliament, suffices.

“The reason we favor constitutional amendment is because the other alternatives are fraught with downsides. Dissolving Parliament leads to the creation of a weak government. On the other hand, extending the state of emergency means prolonging the limitations on citizens’ rights. And soliciting a constitutional interpretation from the House of the Federation cannot bring about a solution because we question the House’s impartiality. It is under the government’s control,” argues Eyob.

But according to Professor Beyene, amending the constitution amid COVID-19 is simply unacceptable because it will undermine the constitution.

“The Constitution is the life of the people. You cannot amend a constitution in a situation where you are unable to undertake free and nationwide discussions involving the general public as well as political parties,” says Professor Beyene.

Apart from the four options presented by the government, some are gunning for political options. Establishing a transitional government is one of the suggested alternatives. Other political groups, including the Prime Minister’s Prosperity Party, however, contend that this is not the right thing to do saying the controversy is rather attributable to legal gaps.  

“Establishing a transitional government at a time when the country is faced with geopolitical threats in relation to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and where there is no consensus among the political elite is akin to posing endangering the nation’s security,” says Tewodros.    

Many others continue to champion an all-inclusive dialogue. Rejecting the four alternatives presented by the government, the Oromo Federalist Congress’s Jawar Mohammed is of the stand that the government should engage in a grand bargain with legally registered political parties. 

Even though a raft of political groups have claimed that the legitimacy of the government currently in power will come to end after its tenure ends in early October, Prime Minister Abiy has asserted that his government will continue to rule the country as the only legitimate body until elections are conducted after the COVID-19 crisis is dealt with.

The cancelation of the 2020 national elections has induced a wrangling between the various political parties operating in the country. No one seems to know where the resulting political heat will lead to.

“The heat in itself is not a problem. The problem will be if certain political groups escalate the rift into political chaos. In that case it can divert the government’s attention and dent its capacity to combat COVID-19,” says Yonatan.