By Neamin Ashenafi
Politicians not affiliated with any party a.k.a. independent candidates have performed well in many elections around the world.
For instance, according to historical documents, US presidents without a major party affiliations were George Washington (1st president), John Tyler (10th president), and Andrew Johnson (17th president), and only Washington served his entire tenure as an independent. On the contrary, the Ethiopian case is the exact opposite. A handful of candidates have run independently and only few have actually won a seat in parliament. And now the number of candidates is decreasing at an alarming rate, writes Neamin Ashenafi.
In its long history, Ethiopia has witnessed various forms of government and administration; however the history of national elections in the country began in the late 20th Century.
In July 1931, Emperor Haileselassie introduced the country’s first ever modern constitution, which, according to many historians and researchers, mainly emphasized on maintaining the status quo of the Emperor, and reserved imperial succession to the line of the king himself.
Apart from drafting and implementation of the constitution, the document is criticized by many for failing to incorporate concepts like election and the establishment of other democratic institutions.
Under this constitution sovereign power rests with the Emperor as it states that “the Emperor is sacred, his dignity is inviolable and his power is also indisputable.” That left no room for ordinary citizens to elect or be elected.
Right after the ratification of the constitution in 1931, a bi-cameral parliament was also established constituting the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The chamber of Deputies constituted members chosen by the Emperor himself which again mainly comprises the nobility and aristocrats.
The Senate composed of members from the nobility, the aristocracy, ministers, distinguished veterans and commanders noted for their long service were chosen by the nobility and local chiefs. There was no definite terms to stay in office. and term of these two houses were 15 to 20 years.
The situation did not change even after the Italian occupation and the return from exile of Emperor Haileselassie. Although the constitution was revised in 1955, members to the chamber of deputies in the last assembly were mostly from sections of the society in the higher social and economic strata and mostly drawn from the civil service, feudal lords and rich merchants of the country. This was when the country started to exercise a form of election which served as a springboard for future elections. According to some, there were at least five elections between 1955 and 1974.
But the socialist military junta which overthrew the Emperor put in place effectively a one party state – Ethiopian Workers Party – and elections became a thing of the past with the banning of political activities.
The assembly of the military rule was unicameral consisting of 835 members.
Since the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)-led government assumed power in 1991, the country has witnessed four general elections and the fifth is scheduled to be conducted in May.
Independent candidates in retrospect:
During the past four general elections indicators like the number of registered voters and turnout, the number of political parties and independent candidates have been relied upon to gauge the success or otherwise of the country’s election process.
One indicator which reveals a continued decline in all four elections held in the past is the number of independent candidates. The first two elections since the 1990s saw an active participation of independent candidates winning significant number of seats in parliament. But their participation is sharply declining
The number of independent candidates registered to run for the upcoming election stands at just five, according to the latest data The Reporter obtained from the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) after the last date of candidates registration.
Among these candidates three are registered to run in the Amhara Regional State while the rest are registered for constituencies in Addis Ababa and the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS).
During the 2010 election, which brought an overwhelming victory for the ruling party EPRDF, only one independent candidate (Ashebir Woldegiorgis (MD)) won a seat in parliament from among 35 independent candidates who contested.
In contrast, the 1995 election saw 960 independent candidates registered to contest for a seat in parliament, out of which ten managed to win a seat in the house. The election, which is regarded as the first major election in the country’s history, was also hailed a success in terms of voter’s registration, which was in excess of 21. 3 million with 94 percent turning out to cast their vote.
The parliament which was established after the first election was composed of 483 members from the ruling EPRDF and 48 members which classified as others, excluding independent candidates.
The composition suggested a favorable playground for independent candidates. Albeit a decline in participation by independent candidates, the 2000 election showed more of a similar picture. The second election saw the participation of 490 independent candidates – 13 winning seats in the country’s legislative body.
During this election, the seats taken by the ruling party was 481 which shows a slight decline. However, the share by others dropped significantly from 48 to 16 excluding independent candidates.
In the election history of the country, many regard the May 2005 election as one of the most heavily contested and one which also changed the course of subsequent elections. It was also the bloodiest as election related clashes resulted in the death of hundreds.
With more candidates opting to be under political party umbrella as opposition parties manage to garner unprecedented public support, the number of independent candidates declined to 353. But the result was even more dismal. While opposition political parties like Coalition for Unity and Democracy (a.k.a. kinijit), United Ethiopian Democratic Forces and Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement secured 109, 52 and 11 seats in parliament, respectively, only one independent candidate managed to win a seat. And that candidate was Negasso Gidada (PhD), who had served as president of the country prior to that.
He run for the constituency of Dembi Dollo, his birthplace, in the Oromia Regional State. In an emailed response to The Reporter, Negaso recalls his decision to run as an independent candidate.
“Because proclamation no. 255/01 [Administration of the President of FDRE] forbids the ex-president from engaging in partisan political activities, I went and discussed the matter with Tesfaye Mengesha and Kemal Bedri [then deputy chairman and chairman of NEBE, respectively] if I can candidate myself as an independent,” Negaso told The Reporter.
After receiving the green light from the board, Negaso went to Dembi Dollo to get registered.
“I went back to Dembi Dollo again to pick up my registration card and for campaign and stayed there until the result was made public,” he said.
But finance proved a major obstacle for Negaso, who was stripped of his presidential privileges at the time.
“When I went for the registration, the President’s office provided me with a car and a designated driver and security with expenses covered. However, I did not get allowance for myself,” he told The Reporter.
According to Addisu Gebregziaber, deputy chairman of NEBE, the board does not provide financial support to independent candidates as it does for political parties.
“The board does not undermine the role of independent candidates in the democratization process. However, the focus is on supporting political parties than independent ones,” he told The Reporter.
Given the financial burden participating in an election – including expenses for campaigns – entails, lack of adequate support might be regarded as one of the factors for the sharp decline in the number of independent candidates in recent elections.
Continuing in the same trend, the 2010 election also saw just one independent candidate win a seat. Ashebir Woldegiorgis (MD) won the seat contesting against Birhanu Adelo, fielded by Southern Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SPDM) a member of the ruling coalition, in the constituency of Bonga in SNNPR.
Ashebir, who will be running independently in the upcoming election, in one parliament session posed a question for Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn regarding the need to provide financial support for independent candidates.
Hailemariam, rather, opted that independent candidates should run under the umbrella of political parties as the government’s focus is more on building a multi-party democracy.
It was recalled that, Asheber and Birhanu had a stiff competition in Bonga. However, the case for Negaso was different as he did not face much competition in his constituency.
“In my constituency, there were no parties except the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO)/EPRDF. And hence, I had no problem in competing with Solomon Abebe (former Ethiopian Ambassador to South Africa),” Negasso said.
The number of independent candidates registered for the upcoming election is even more alarming with only five candidates so far registered. Though according to Addisu, “the board has not yet received all the data in relation to number of independent candidates following the deadline of registration for independent candidates.”
Beyond the financial burden however, the various laws that came into force after the 2005 election governing the electoral process of the country is not encouraging enough for independent candidates, some argue.
This is reflected in the lack of apportionment of government financial support for independent candidates as well as priorities given to political parties in case of excess candidates registered within a single constituency.
The law puts the maximum number of candidates in a single constituency to 12. In the event where there are more than 12 candidates registered in one constituency, priority is given to candidates registered under a political party. In addition, independent candidates only assume an observers status in the Joint Political Parties’ Council.
Commentators say, provisions like these could also serve as an obstacle for a candidate who wishes to run independently.