Ethiopia: The Eventful First Week of Ethiopia's 6th National Election Campaign

opinion

Initially, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) had announced it would hold the sixth General Elections on August 29, 2020; however, the board, in consultation with the House of People's Representatives (HPR) postponed the date due to the Coronavirus pandemic. With the elections postponed indefinitely, the mandate of the federal government which ended on October 5, 2020 had to be extended on the basis of a legal interpretation.

The previous five general elections, which were held in 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015, were criticized for not being free, fair, and transparent. Could this year's general elections be any different? Are the political parties ready for the election? Do they have alternative and better policies to improve the lives of Ethiopians? Is the political landscape of the country open enough to accommodate differences via dialogue? These are the questions raised by many members of opposition parties and analysts that follow the country closely.

Despite recurring questions for clarity regarding the above issues, the incumbent headed by PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has repeatedly stated that his government is committed to ensuring the upcoming general elections are free and fair. Accordingly, it is preparing to hold general elections for Members of Parliament and regional councils on June 5, 2021.

With opportunities to kick start a viable democracy wasted a number of times before, many argue the upcoming election is yet another historic chance for Ethiopia to hold free and fair elections. The prospects for a lasting change and a transition to democracy were sensed when the Dergue came into power in 1974 spelling the end of monarchy in the country. However, the chance was lost once the parties involved chose to solve the issue at the barrel of a gun instead of the ballot. Another opportunity presented itself once again when the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) replaced the Dergue in 1991. Yet again, the prospects fizzled out as the will of the ruling group to pass the responsibility of running the country was basically absent as demonstrated by the procession of rigged elections stated above. Now that it has been three years since the reforming government of Abiy has come to the helm, it is time to test whether the current group of leaders have it in them not to squander the chance at a true democracy.

Ensuring the democratic nature of the upcoming general elections is not just about electing representatives for the parliament or regional councils but also about averting the prospects of another bloody episode, strengthening democratic institutions and beginning the transition to democracy.

As with its predecessors that failed the test of history and thus have put themselves in hazy limelight, explains a political analyst who spoke to The Reporter on condition of anonymity, the current crop of ruling elites are presented with a historical litmus test of elections. He stated: "If the upcoming elections prove to be free and fair, the ruling elites and their party will assume a very prestigious place in the country's history. Their credibility would also not easily come under question going ahead." If the elections are perceived as rigged, however, "the slow machine that runs on social forces would start its steady but inevitable journey to devour the culprits."

Now that the Electoral timetable set by the Board has this week allowed parties to start their election campaigns, we have moved a step closer to the moment of truth. Parties, including the incumbent, have since launched different campaign activities in their endeavor to win the hearts of voters in different parts of Addis Ababa.

Notably, the activities of the incumbent Prosperity Party (PP) and one of the opposition parties, the Ethiopian Citizens for Social justice (EZEMA), were visible. PP launched its electoral symbol and election manifesto in an event held at Sheraton Addis in the presence of Party President and Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed (PhD).

The speech by the PM during the launching event was a major talking point among fellow citizens mainly on various social media platforms. The PM was quoted as saying: "The manifesto of Prosperity Party is not a contract between the government and the public. It is rather a vow between the government and the public."

A number of people have pondered on the intentional rejection of the term 'contract' to use 'vow' to refer to relations between the party and the public. With nerves running high on whether the elections would indeed be free and fair, scrutinizing the Prime Minister's choice of words is totally understandable. Contracts carry a legal obligation and a time frame to be extended or not. However, a vow carries a sentimental pledge to stay together forever. Already wary of the possibility of another chance being squandered, some people have taken it as a bad sign.

If that was a dubious expression on the part of the PM, his description of the manifestos of other political parties as 'fiction' made his intentions crisp. Some members of the opposition camp have since expressed their irritation with the intentionally offending comments.

On the other hand, EZEMA organized a bus tour across the city in which leaders of the party briefed the public about their ideology, programs and their alternative policies to bus passengers. Another political party, Balderas for True Democracy (Balderas), citing technical problems for the postponement of their campaign, stated that the party will commence campaigning as of Monday. Other opposition parties have also revealed that they are almost finalizing their preparations and will engage in campaign activities intensively as of early next week.

Political parties in the opposition camp are already fielding numerous complaints against the fairness of the run up to the elections, expressing difficulties moving around the country to galvanize support among the society. The latest party to do so is Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice a.k.a. EZEMA.

EZEMA accused the Oromia regional government and members of PP in the region of killing its active member, Girma Moges Legesse, a day before the election campaign kicked off. EZEMA's active member and chairman of the party in Oromia Regional State Bishoftu City, Adde'a Wereda, Kebele 1, was shot dead on Sunday, February 14, 2021, on his way back home.

According to the chairman of the party, Yeshiwas Assefa, the party firmly believes the killing was politically motivated and aimed at frustrating other members of the party across the country. He underscored that "such kind of incidents will definitely put the credibility of the pre-election period in question along with the promises by the incumbent to make the upcoming elections free and fair."

If the incumbent is determined to live up to its words and promises, EZEMA demanded, the government should investigate the case and ensure that the perpetrators face the Law. Furthermore, deputy leader of the party, Andualem Arage said "If the PM is really concerned about the democratic and free nature of the upcoming general elections, he has to come out and tell his cadres to behave."

EZEMA has been one of the political parties that has kept a good relation with the ruling PP. EZEMA is frequently criticized for turning a blind eye to the political transgressions of the ruling party. Although a few issues, including EZEMA's report on land grabbing in Addis, have recently marked the political tussle between the two parties, the start of political campaign seems to herald a tougher era in their relations.

Apart from the complaints in relation to the harassment and intimidation of party members in different parts of the country, the conflict in Tigray region also provides a difficult backdrop to conduct national election preparations. Other challenges to the elections include the security challenges all across the country that have been compounded by the pandemic and the devastating locust invasion.

While the given political landscape is an important factor in any campaign, in many cases the most important factor that makes the difference between winning and losing is what goes on inside the campaign, analysts said.

In this regard, experts in the field generally categorize three types of political campaigns that have nearly no chance to achieve victory on Election Day, due to their own internal failures.

The first is a campaign that does not have a persuasive message to deliver to voters and does not have a clear idea. This type of campaign, according to experts, lacks direction from the beginning and the situation will only get worse.

Second is the campaign that has a concise, persuasive message and a clear idea but lacks a reasonable plan on what to do between now and Election Day to persuade voters. This type of campaign wastes time, money and people as it wanders aimlessly towards Election Day. It is often distracted by the days' events, by things the opponent's campaign does or by things the press says, spending more time reacting to outside factors than promoting its own agenda.

Finally, the third kind of campaign is one that has a clear message, a clear idea and a plan but it fails to follow through on the plan, not doing the hard work day after day to get elected. This is a lazy campaign that makes excuses as to why it cannot do what it knows must be done and in the end makes excuses as to why it lost.

The winning political campaign is most often the one that takes the time to target voters, develop a persuasive message and follows through on a reasonable plan to contact those voters directly.

The basics of any election campaign are deceptively simple. All campaigns must repeatedly communicate a persuasive message to people who will vote. This is "the golden rule" of politics. An election campaign is a communication process that finds the right message, target that message to the right group of voters, and repeat that message again and again.

Experts in the field state than an election campaign is an intense experience and when done correctly, it is a lot of hard work. There are no tricks or short cuts to winning the confidence of voters. Therefore, many advise and expect from political parties, including the incumbent, to focus on the issues "that matter most," than accusing and pointing fingers at each other. That is what the voter wants and knowing what the voter wants and working to fulfill that demand is a guarantee to get elected.

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