Gauging Public Participation Ahead of the Elections

Tayitu 14th

Public observers’ registration for the forthcoming national election was conducted a fortnight ago. Yet members of the opposition have downplayed the election process and have even gone far and called for a re-election. This is seen by some as something that is shrouded by indifference, animosity, apprehension or uncertainty, reports Yonas Abiye.

Haliegebriel Admassie, 32, claims he is very aware of his constitutional rights to vote as well as running for office. He says that election is a key instrument and a component of democracy and one parameter to weigh up the level of civilization. However, he is unable to give adequate explanation as to why he thinks election is just a political rhetoric in his country. “Though I realize casting in my vote in elections is my right, I do not usually go to the polls to vote. I just prefer to accept whoever wins,” Hailegebriel reacted to The Reporter’s inquiry about his participation in the upcoming national and regional election scheduled for May this year.

He looks cautious while reacting to questions regarding the election. He even tries to change the subject in an attempt to avoid political issues, revealing his discomfort dealing with politics.

Unlike Hailegebriel, certain sections of the society seem to believe that they should go to the polling stations to cast their vote on ballot casting day not because it’s their constitutional right, but because it is their duty as citizens, but not as an ” obligation” because they are told to vote by Kebele or wereda officials.

“If Kebele officials call upon us to go and cast our votes, what else can we do other than going?” Yeworkwuha Semanegus, a resident around the Kebena area of Addis Ababa says.

For Yeworkwuha, apparently in her mid-50s, the biggest concern is whether her two girls and a boy, who is a 12th grader, would go to the polling centers in the coming months to get registered. However, she laments the fact that none of her children has got the interest to go for registration. She even fears that their unwillingness may cause problems with the Kebele with an eventual impact on her livelihood.

Whether the majority of Ethiopians are well aware of their right to vote or not is a debatable issue as it is hard to accesses well-researched evidence on the subject matter. However, the most responsible organ to organize and govern elections in Ethiopia, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) usually claims that the majority of the society is well informed and aware of its right to vote.

“We have been undertaking various trainings and sensitizing workshops to enable the public to participate in the upcoming election. From time to time, we are witnessing a rise in the level of awareness among the public regarding elections and voting. We have utilized the mass media to promote the election and urged the public to exercise its voting right. Similarly, a massive education campaign has been undertaken in schools through civic education,” the board said in a statement a month ago.

Two weeks ago, the board held public observers election in Addis Ababa and throughout the country. Observes election is usually taken to be a very good gauge to forecast public participation for the main election.

This year’s public observers’ election has already entertained two extreme receptions, one by the board and the other from political parties. As the Board declared, the election has been successful, free and fair, while the opposition groups immediately underplayed the overall process, and accused the board of being a tool of the ruling party.

According to the board, so far, over 225,000 public observes have been elected with each polling station having five public observers. Similarly, in each polling station, there will be three mobile observers who would monitor the election process and vote counting.

Its was only a day after the polling date that the coalition of nine political parties formed a few month ago emerged to criticize the board and the election process.

“The so-called public observes election was once again a testimony to the unity of the ruling party and electoral board,” the coalition said in its statement.

“We have been presenting our concerns to the electoral board which is not independent; when we say the political sphere needs to be free, it is with such evidence that proves the electoral board serves as a tool for the ruling party. Again, it was the same thing that we observed during the public observers election,” the coalition said.

With the same tone, in a statement sent to The Reporter on December 25, Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), another prominent opposition group, underplayed the public observers election.

In its statement entitled ‘We don’t believe that any public observers election has been held’, UDJ said, “although UDJ realizes that the national electoral board is neither free nor independent, the said election held on December 21 has led us to question the very existence of an electoral board in our country”.

UDJ further criticized the election process by saying, “not only is the elections free and neutral, it also failed to be conducted based on the election proclamation. It was undertaken even against its own (Board’s) regulation”.

A game of numbers

During the past 24 years, the country has witnessed four general elections nationally every five years. This has brought arguably praises and encouragement to the nation for being able to give its citizens the chance to exercise the democratic process and ensuring that the public enjoyed its power of electing its government democratically.

In the past four major elections, both the board and the government claimed that public participation in the voting process has been progressively increasing in their respective order. In fact, one has to take note of the possible disparity between the number of voters on polling day and those registered to vote.

However, the level of turnout on polling day is one of the issues that the NEBE, the opposition and the government usually squabble over. While the NEBE and the government claim that the level of public participation is increasing, the opposition parties and other critics, on the other hand, downplay the claim by saying the government is exaggerating to paint a rosy picture.

Opposition groups accuse the government of exaggerating the participation claiming that the public, especially after the 2005 election and the violence in the aftermath, is largely frustrated.

According to the data obtained from the board, the first democratic and multi-party election was held in 1995, where some 21.3 million people were registered in 500 constituencies and in 32,000 poll stations. Out of the total, 91 percent were said to have cast their votes. Similarly, 22 million people were registered for voting in the 2000′ general election where 28 million and 32 million people were registered for the 2005 and 2010 general elections respectively.

However, some political analysts argue that the increasing number of registered voters in each election and public perception are not one and the same.

It might not be even a sound argument to claim the public go to polling stations fully aware of its constitutional right – the right to vote and the right to be elected. But, there are some indications as to the rate of awareness varied among various sections of the society. Individuals who are well educated may be commonly thought to have a better awareness regarding political and election issues. In contrast, there might be low awareness on election matters among the less educated members of the society.

Unlike this common perception, there are also few people who disprove the aforementioned argument and rather found it to be the reverse.

But, when some people, who are well educated and believed to have better awareness, are found to be rather negligent a serious question may be raised on commonly held beliefs against the government and political actors.

Firehiwot, 27, has been working for a private company engaged in tour and travel business after she graduated in business management from a university. For Firehiwot, politics is all about government affairs and she never thought that politics has anything to do with her life. Asked whether she realizes that participating in election or voting is her constitutional right, she hesitatingly replies ‘yes’. “This stuff never interested me at all,” she told The Reporter. She even explains that she never considered when and how election is conducted, let alone thinking about voting.

“Who am I to vote in what you call elections. Politics is nothing for me; I do not even understand it. I even wonder whenever I see people talking about it. Sometimes, it surprises me whenever my father and brothers engage in a heated debate in our home at night. I never understand what they are talking about,” she said, adding that she rather gets annoyed when her father and brothers discuss current affairs after watching the evening news on television and while she wants to tune into one of the movie channels.

Coffee for election

Among several factors which influence the level of public participation in elections is the effort of the political campaigners contesting for seats to provide an alternative idea to citizens. To get across the massage of contesting parties a mass media that addresses the majority of the population is key. However, in Ethiopia, that is the one of the areas where most local political parties cry foul play. They accuse the ruling party of denying them access. They also accuse the government of exclusively allowing the ruling party to use the public media.

During the 2010 election, the ruling party also introduced a new mechanism by which the Kebele officials were trying to get more public participation in elections. They call it “coffee drinking ceremony”. This is mostly practiced to increase the participation of women during elections.

During the past week, The Reporter has witnessed the revival of the “coffee drinking ceremony” in most Kebeles of the capital ahead of the May election.

The NEBE on its part claims that it is making a successful effort to enable the public participates in elections without any forceful pressure from any political party. Meanwhile, the opposition complains that the public went to the polling stations like in the recently election of public observers due to a call by Kebele officials instead of the board.

“They know that it (observers election) is incorporated on the election timetable. Because it was with them that we endorsed the election schedule,” Vice chairman of NEBE, Addisu Gebregziabher (PhD), told The Reporter.

According to him, opposition parties have been invited to election centers to follow the election process based on the law.

“We have made a call to all political parties via various mass media. We made invitation to all of them to see how the election process is taking place and at the same time to monitor whether the candidates are independent and neutral,” Addis said emphasizing that the board could not accept the accusation.

“It is up to them to attend the election process. Our duty is to offer and send invitations. That was what we did,” the vice chairman added.

In response to claims that the election didn’t meet the required number of voters in most election centers to genuinely be called an independent and neutral election, the vice chairman said, “On that very day, some 225,000 public observers were elected nationwide. We have been monitoring it the whole day. At the national level, we have conducted four general elections so far. But this year, at that particular day, we have observed a surprising level of voter turnout which we have never seen before. This, hence, is exciting since it has surpassed our expectation”.

However, Tilahun Endeshaw, Public Relation head of Medrek, another prominent opposition party, on his part downplayed the board’s statement saying, “the election was just short of any standard attracting a very limited number of voters, which could never be sufficient to test public interest in the upcoming election.”

But he did not accept the claims that the public has lost interest in elections after the 2005 general election.

“The public always has a strong desire for election despite the lack of free election process,” Tilahun points his figure on the ruling party that he accuses of intimidating and creating various stumbling blocks against free election.

He argues that such challenges have been witnessed once again during the public observers’ election which he described as “something that left the public with a dead hope” ahead of the upcoming election.

“There is no reason why such kind of unfair election process would not affect the outcome of the upcoming election negatively,” Tilahun revealed his concern for this year’s general election.

Similarly, Mamushet Amare, President of the All Ethiopian Unity Organization (AEUO), who was recently elected as a chairman of the party which later stirred a controversy, told The Reporter that his party shares the concern of other opposition political parties regarding the process and the outcome of the observers election.

“If you call that an election, it is an election that was simply made by the board with no adequate public campaign, and it does not in anyway measure public interest,” Mamush said.

He supported his argument by explaining that his party made a follow-up in some 420 Kebeles and found out that there was not sufficient public participation to prove that the election was undertaken convincingly.

“Since the public observers election is conducted in this situation that the public neither heard about it nor seen it, nor took part in it, it’s still difficult to gauge the general public interest for the May election,” the AEUO chairman said.

“Unless the board facilitates all favourable environment for us and for media and other concerned body to enable us engaging in public campaigning, it is impossible to rally the public for voting by running four minutes long television infomercials,” according to Mamushet.

Meanwhile, NEBE stands more optimistic that a satisfactory number of eligible Ethiopian would go for voting on the upcoming election by citing the “expectation surprising” number of voters that took part last month on the public observer’s mini-election.

“In some places, there might be an exciting participation level. We may find strong participation in one place and low participation in another. Similarly, you may find it somewhat average somewhere. Considering all these situations, the general participation of the public in public observers election was mainly encouraging for us. It also helped us to correct all the existing shortcomings in order not to repeat them in the upcoming election,” Addisu told The Reporter.

The board has already unveiled its schedules of the election that extends from preparation to result announcement dates. Hence, 16th of May is already set to be the election date. While some political parties and external observes insist on lower public interest to the election, a few days ago the electoral board revealed that it forecasts that it registers as much as 33 million voters.

Just by looking at the recent controversial public observers election, no one expects the ruling party and the opposition camp to agree on the forecast as to how many people would really take part in the election. But what determines the public participation most is the responsibility of the actors particularly, the NEBE and all political parties who should discharge their share in campaigning freely. And the outcome of this campaigning will determine the size of public participation which, as a result, rates the election’s standard.

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