Ethiopia's electoral manoeuvres

Why does the Ethiopian government regularly organise elections and invite observers, only to reject their findings? Why do international actors such as the EU Observer Mission continue to participate in these processes despite jeopardizing their credibility? 

Elise Dufief
26 August 2014

Former Ethiopian leader, Meles Zenawi after a meeting with German Chancellor, Berlin, 2003/Shutterstock/Some rights reservedSince the overthrow of the communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in May 1991, Ethiopia has organised regular elections in which an increasing number of international actors, especially election observers, have been involved.  During this period, one political organization, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has been dominant. When in control, the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, served continuously as head of government until his death in August 2012. He was succeeded by Hailemariam Desalegn.

The tensions and contradictions between external democracy-promoters and the practices and ideals of the Ethiopian leadership were brought into sharp focus after the 2005 and 2010 elections. Both elections led to a diplomatic crisis, especially between the regime and EU observers. However, this conflict did not substantially affect the levels of external aid or the continued dominance of the EPRDF.

The interaction between international and domestic actors is relevant to understanding the persistence of hegemonic forces that endorse democratic principles while shrinking political space. Elections in many countries are no longer an exclusively national concern but are embedded in international relations. Strategies of power in both international and domestic arenas influence the nature of power relations. However disputed the nature of elections, actors on the ground must maintain diplomatic relations while pursuing their political objectives. The Ethiopian regime interacts with external democracy-promoters in ways that weaken the democratic enterprise while strengthening the regime itself. Such goals are accomplished in the following three ways.

Multiple discourses and authority

This dimension involves employing discourses of democracy-promotion in the interaction between international and national actors. In this phase, the Ethiopian regime uses a strategy of advancing its position on the international scene while protecting the domestic sphere through practices of inclusion, exclusion, and fostering divisions among international actors. At best, the regime seeks inclusion in the international system by implementing accepted indicators of a democratic system, such as holding national elections and inviting international observers.

In 2005 three US organizations were originally invited, including a Carter Center mission led by Jimmy Carter himself. The EU sent one of its biggest missions, and the African Union (AU) and the Arab League also participated. In 2010, however, only the AU and the EU took part. Once again, the latter deployed a large number of observers and sought to influence the electoral process despite its limited capacity to realistically observe the elections. A second dimension of this phase saw observers initially invited but then excluded by the regime. In 2005 the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute for International Affairs were expelled from the country before election day.

The EU mission’s final report was rejected by the government, the inconsistencies of the mission denounced and the chief of the mission banned from the country. Similarly, in 2010, the EU final report was rejected, its chief observer banned from the country and public demonstrations organised against it. The rejection of election observers represents an assertion of national authority and also an opportunity to reverse power hierarchies. By presenting election observers as destabilising actors, the regime justifies excluding them from the political process.

This exclusion is extended to local opposition parties which are presented as linked to these allegedly destabilising factors and is further extended beyond the state to civil society and the media via a series of restrictive laws enacted after the 2005 elections.

In the end, through the manipulation of practices and ideals set by international observers and their organisations, the ruling party solidifies its control and becomes the sole and indispensable actor in the country’s politics.

In the final stage, the state, now in a stronger position, can exploit disagreements among international actors who remain involved regardless of the defective electoral process. Local authorities are aware of these ambiguities and seek to enhance their bargaining power: “if it is too difficult to negotiate with Sweden”, they might reason, “then let us talk to the Italians”; “if Europe is proving too difficult, let us meet with the Indians”, and so on. In this web of shifting alliances, the Ethiopian state emerges stronger by avoiding constraints and conditionalities.

Hailemariam Desalegn meets US secretary of state, John Kerry, 5 Aug 2014/US Department of State/Flickr/Some rights reserved

Alternatives to the policies of international actors

The second phase involves developing alternatives to the recommendations of observers and democracy-promoters while keeping a tight control on domestic politics.

The rejection of observers not only undermines the role of international actors in democracy-promotion, it also forces them to change their methods. This strategy contributes to the narrowing of political space which sees international actors gradually withdrawing from democracy-promotion in Ethiopia. The Democratic Institution Programme implemented in 2007 to support seven institutions, including the Parliament, the National Electoral Board, and the Human Rights Commission, is coming to an end. Its aim to “develop a fully operational democratic, accountable and responsive constitutional federalism, ensuring citizens empowerment and participation” was clearly foiled by the 2010 elections.

In parallel, the work of international actors in support of civil society organizations has been limited since the passing of new laws post-2005, restricting international funding for NGOs working on human rights and democratisation. Most of these organisations were forced to re-register and adjust their activities which considerably transformed the landscape of civil society.

From the Ethiopian leadership’s perspective, the weakening of international actors called for a policy shift in the form of the African Renaissance. Initiated after the 2005 elections, this shift became more visible after 2010; the political stability achieved by the EPRDF allowed the ruling party to alter its priorities. Economic performance became the central focus as Ethiopia launched the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP): an ambitious program with both a pro-poor dimension and a commitment to achieve middle-income status by 2025. The GTP has been successful so far as Ethiopia has become one of the fastest growing non-oil exporting economies in the world with an average GDP growth of 10 percent per year.

With the enhanced economic focus has come the reactivation of the Revolutionary Democracy ideology, treating the grassroots as the key support-base of the regime. To reach the grassroots, the party-state considerably expanded its local structures such that in preparation for the 2013 local elections, the EPRDF mobilized 3.6 million candidates, transforming the administrative structure of the country. It also expanded the party membership to more than 5 million Ethiopians.

Various institutions were also considerably expanded and decentralised. The National Elections Board, for instance, opened branch offices in each federal state and increased its personnel and presence outside Addis Ababa.

From about 100 people in 2008, this body now has more than 200 employees working in and outside the capital city. It also announced a broadening of its mandate before the 2010 election. The Elections Board is now in charge of civic and voter education. In these calculated ways, the EPRDF has used the resources offered by election observers and democracy promoters to increase its capacity to reinforce the state and further entrench the ruling party’s domination.

Reordering power relations

The first two dimensions now permit the reordering of power relations: external actors are weakened and the Ethiopian regime strengthened. Three further related implications are identified which affect, on the one hand, the capacity of international actors to work on democracy promotion and governance and, on the other, the sustainability of the Ethiopian regime’s power strategies.

First, the meaning of democratic governance and human rights in Ethiopia has been altered. International actors now treat these issues as including social accountability and as such donor assistance has been steered towards support for women, youths, and other vulnerable categories in keeping with the GTP. In parallel, a number of legal aid centres have been created, making the provision of legal services a new arena to gain popular support.

Secondly, sensitive political issues have been depoliticised. The Ethiopian state tends to adopt a technocratic approach to implementing development programs. Similarly, the electoral discourse focuses on the increased number of party members, the level of voters’ participation, and so on. In response, international actors similarly present election monitoring as an attempt to fix a technical problem, providing an aura of neutrality to a very political process.

GTZ, the German Cooperation agency, was voted the best election observation mission in 2010 in Ethiopia, emphasising the technical success of the mission while ignoring the failures of some of its observers. It has become difficult to object to this technocratic discourse. Political space is increasingly uncontested while the EPRDF’s domination is further consolidated.

Finally, the suspension of politics does not resolve existing challenges. Rather, it potentially creates more of them. Although the death of Meles Zenawi was followed by a relatively smooth transition, his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, does not seem to be fully in charge; internal struggles in the party might present a challenge in the lead-up to the May 2015 elections and the emergence of new parties such as the Semayawi Party and the organisation of public demonstrations, even if still marginal, pose challenges to the uncontested rule of the EPRDF.

On the economic front, the forecast of growth rates has been revised downward as the first phase of the GTP ends in 2015. In addition, huge development projects, such as the construction of the Blue Nile Dam, are experiencing financial difficulties which can affect balances of power among countries in the region. The EPRDF cannot count on the small middle class which has emerged as this part of society is shying away from politics.

Ethiopia is not immune to social unrest as localized protests occur throughout the country. Recent signs of potential unrest include religious tensions between Muslims and government officials, students’ demonstrations in Oromia in opposition to the Addis Master Plan, and the arrest of Zone Nine bloggers and journalists.

Nevertheless, the Ethiopian regime continues to be the beneficiary of considerable international support. Dessalegn’s first European visit was to the EU headquarters in Brussels to negotiate trade contracts. It is clear Ethiopia remains an important strategic partner for the west despite the regime’s dilution of democratic processes and the further entrenchment of hegemonic power.

The EPRDF has shown that embracing the trappings of democracy while subverting its content is an effective way to counter external critics while reinforcing the state.

Buoyed by economic growth and effective political control, the regime is well positioned to continue the strategy of out-manoeuvring donors, critics, and anyone demanding political reform.

In addition, it can draw on the involvement of non-traditional partners, such as China and India, to further erode the impact of western powers and the agencies they control. These features of political life and the well-honed power strategies of the regime should be kept in mind by all observers in the run-up to the May 2015 elections

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