31 July 2005

Ethiopia: The Board and Post-Election Fatigue


I think the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) may be considered as the biggest disruptive institution in this country. I would not dare use the term "terrorist organization" because I know that it has no bombs and does not kill people in the conventional sense of the term.

Yet, by indefinitely withholding the final results of the May 15th polls, it is subjecting the public to what I think is a kind of "psychological terrorism" with high anxiety and tension, if not despair, resulting from election fatigue.

For more than two months, this nation has been living in a state of suspense not only because the public has no clear idea as to the ultimate winner of the elections but also because it does not also know where the country is going. A clear sense of direction is lacking. And no society can move forward without a sense of clear direction.

The Board is indulging in "psychological terrorism" by withholding the final results and leaving the electorate in a state of utter confusion, wild guessing or psychological destabilization. The possibility of another round of violence may not be ruled out when public impatience leads to anger. If and when this occurs, no one else but the Board should bear the brunt of the responsibility.

Another round of election-related violence might occur in the constituencies where the NEBE has decided to repeat the voting process due to confirmed irregularities. Meanwhile, delay continues to ferment disillusionment and anger.

So, we have many places where time bombs are waiting for the right moment and condition to be detonated. If you asked me who planted the bombs, not literally of course, but figuratively, I would say the NEBE did.

The Board is often proud of the experience it has accumulated in organizing past elections. But this is total nonsense since it had never organized an openly contested democratic election in the past. The previous two elections in 1995 and 2000 were pseudo-elections or mockeries of democracy, as the Board itself must admit now.

The moment it attempted to manage a relatively democratic and free election last May, it proved unable to do it neatly and disclose the results on time. More than two months after the May elections, the NEBE is still dilly-dallying with the outcomes.

The piecemeal approach to disclosing the results has no doubt made the NEBE very suspect.

Is it bowing to the will of the incumbent that might be trying to diffuse the public anger and unpredictable outcome that would have resulted had the full results been disclosed earlier?

The piecemeal disclosure of the results was meant to avoid popular shock and indignation that might have resulted from an incumbent victory. The NEBE should have taken the necessary time, even three months if that were necessary, and come out with the full tally. Short of that, it has become a world record holder not only in delaying election results but also in allegedly messing up what was otherwise an excellent voting process.

The Board's "psychological terrorism" is also leading to what I may call "economic terrorism". The delaying of election results is frightening away potential investors who feel anxious and lack confidence in the process and have therefore decided to wait and see before committing their money to any significant investment.

This kind of "economic terrorism" is in turn giving way to the flourishing of an invisible business through the activities of gangster businesspeople. They would try to exploit the confusion and uncertainty that have been generated as a result of the delay in the disclosure of the final results.

Even if the vote counting had been clean, the very delay in the disclosure of the final results was bound to create doubt and mistrust in the public mind. A controversial election like the present one, however, makes a bad situation worse by unnecessarily stretching public patience to its limit.

It will certainly be very hard for the NEBE to convince the electors concerning its impartiality now that suspicion is fast degenerating into cynicism. Public apathy about the political process will also lead to a state of deep disillusionment and shift back to political alienation.

The neutrality of the NEBE might be controversial. What is more fatal is the present state of immobility the nation has been kept in as a result of the indefinite delay in the disclosure of the final election results. The moment of catharsis might come this week. With good luck, the post-election fatigue might give way to renewed hope.

Otherwise, we may be set to make the transition from "psychological terrorism" to real terrorism.

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