Ethiopia: Overcoming Hurdles to Mount Effective Election Campaign

opinion

After repeated extensions due to several factors, the registration of candidates for the sixth general elections slated to be held in June this year officially came to conclusion early this week. According to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), 47 political parties fielded candidates for the upcoming polls.

Out of the 8,209 candidates registered in 673 constituencies during the 22-day registration period, 125 are running unaffiliated with any political party. The Board attributed the extension to, among others, delays in opening registration facilities in some regional states, transportation problem and complaints by numerous political parties stating the time allotted for registration was inadequate.

Virtually all of the over 50 legally certified parties operating in Ethiopia blamed the federal and regional governments, the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) as well as NEBE for what they allege to be irregularities that marred the registration process. While there may some truth to the grievances the parties are expressing, only a handful of them make the necessary preparations throughout the five-year election cycle.

The majority of parties come to life when elections come around, waking out of their torpor when the electoral board announces the election schedule. Even then the effort they make to increase their visibility is timid. If the public were asked to name them it would be hard pressed to mention a few.

The biggest problem currently besetting the political scene in Ethiopia is the unhealthy relationship existing between political parties. The lack of desire to tolerate differences and work on shared agendas on the part of both the part of the ruling and opposition parties, the hatred and disrespect displayed during election campaigning, the polarized positions espoused on critical national issues, using intermediaries to engage in a dialogue instead of trying to meet halfway the other side, etc. beget an atmosphere of apathy during polls, constricting further the political space. Consequently, Ethiopian politics is perennially marked by smearing of opponents as well as cries of foul and rebuttals.

The situation within the opposition camp is also a cause for dismay. Parties which, prior to elections, claim to subscribe to different ideologies actually champion essentially similar positions and election manifestos during campaigning, compelling the electorate to conclude that they are one and the same. The fact that each opposition party fields candidates on its own despite these similarities is one of the factors which detrimentally affect the votes they garner.

The feebleness of opposition parties has even been attested by international news agencies, which have always described them as being "fractured and weak". If like-minded parties had been able to accommodate their differences, adopt a common platform on the issues on which they see eye to eye, and agree not to run against each other in any constituency, they would not have appeared to be disjointed. However, as they do not give serious thought to electioneering for large periods of the election cycle, they are still functioning in the "business-as-usual" mode.

The practice of forming alliances or coalitions just as polls are on the horizon is not of much use to fostering democracy. True, opposition parties have always operated in an environment where they have routinely been subjected to all manners of intimidation. It's in the backdrop of such a restrictive political space that they have contested elections. Indeed, the sacrifice they paid in the midst of all this adversity is praiseworthy. All the same the question is whether they have corrected the mistakes they made in previous elections and developed the capacity to run a better campaign this time round. This is a question they can answer best.

The political parties ranged across Ethiopia's political landscape are not evenly matched. The ruling Prosperity Party is a behemoth which has with deep pockets, millions of members and supporters as well as the ability to use the state machinery to forge an ideological hegemony. On the other hand, even opposition parties that are deemed to be relatively strong by Ethiopian standards are beset with a raft of shortcomings including, among others, weak organizational capacity, inadequate membership base and financial resource, failure to engage in full-time politics and the inability to withstand the challenges they face. It is precisely this sad state of affairs that Ethiopians should be gravely concerned about.

The constitutionally guaranteed right of citizens to determine their own fate makes it imperative on all stakeholders in the electoral process to do their absolute best to render the elections a platform which takes Ethiopia to the next level. All political parties competing in the June elections have to enable the public to choose freely the representatives it believes best serve its interest and thereby deepen the democratization process underway. As such, it is incumbent upon each and every one of them to appreciate that running in an election is not something they decide to do with little thought and preparation; they must not wait for the official launch of election campaigning to earn votes. This is an objective they have to toil for each and every day without waiting for elections to come around every five year. Accordingly, they should embark on the task of doing an effective job of publicizing their political program and policy alternatives in order to broaden their support base. Otherwise, they are bound to fail in their quest to come to power and will be unable to play a meaningful role in consolidating the country's budding democracy.

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