Analyzing the election results: the two competing trends
It has now been almost a month since the 2010 national election was successfully conducted in a peaceful and calm manner. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia has already declared the provisional results according to which the incumbent won a landslide victory. While the victory of the ruling party is not by itself much of a surprise given its performance in terms of economic development the last five years, there has nonetheless been much wonderment with regard to the wide gap in the performance of the ruling party and the opposition. The fact that the opposition failed to win a significant number of parliamentary seats has drawn a lot of debate across the country and among outside commentators. Questions are still being asked as to why people’s expectations of the relative strength of the contending parties fell wildly off the mark. Taking a step back from the performance of the parties in this election, there are also attempts to draw some kind of conclusion on the short-term and long-term implications of this development on the overall democratization process in the country. The attempt to make sense of the results is only understandable; but there is also a tendency by some to read too much into the results—and cynically.
Why did the EPRDF win and the opposition lose by such a wide margin? For some the question is not all that difficult to answer; they just point to the huge development works currently underway in the country: construction of infrastructure and the obvious transformation of a significant portion of the lives of the Ethiopian population as a result of the government’s policies. Even the BBC’s Will Ross said as much. The fact that the EPRDF put much effort into campaigning, unlike in the past, is also believed to have made a significant contribution. What’s more, these people also readily point to the opposition’s lack of a well-thought-out political platform and strong organizational structure. This assessment is also shared to a certain extent by some sections of the opposition in Ethiopia. No sooner were the provisional results declared than the great majority of opposition parties that participated in the election began soul-searching in an attempt to make sense of the results. Many of them have already conceded defeat and having reflected on the weaknesses and strengths of their respective campaigns, they have come to the conclusion that the victory of the ruling party is attributable as much to its concrete development record as to the rampant division and disorganization within their ranks. However, this is far from a cut-and-dried explanation of the factors that conspired to deny the opposition the kind of electoral outcome some so stubbornly hoped would see the opposition outperform the incumbent.
Indeed considerable time and resources have gone into supporting the democratic process and there has been important progress. The negotiations among political parties were a bona fide effort to make the electoral process as free and fair as possible. The decision of the government to disburse funds for parties to finance their campaigns was another milestone in the run-up to the elections. The preparations made by the NEBE were meant to ensure that the electoral process would effectively run its course and handle complaints if and when they arose. Yet it is much harder to make judgment on the degree to which these actions have contributed to the building of confidence among all the various parties contending during the elections. But it is fair to conclude that they have gone a long way to addressing the kind of irregularities so prevalent in the previous election. But the focus of many commentators is exclusively on the result of the elections and the explanations are half-baked at best.
Needless to say, one has to be clear-eyed about the evolving political dynamics in the country to have a better grasp of things and to arrive at a cogent conclusion with regard to the factors, the inter-play of which might have better influenced the outcome of the elections. For quite some time now, the standard explanation by mostly external commentators for the election results has largely been one of blaming the incumbent for all sorts of electoral mishaps that might have befallen the opposition in the election. In the most outrageous cases such as the likes of HRW, the results of the May 2010 elections “were simply a milestone in a broader effort by the EPRDF to consolidate control” and the incumbent’s victory is the result of “the government’s five-year strategy of systematically closing down space for political dissent and criticism.” Of course, the very allegations are considered tautologies in their own right. Even well-meaning commentators almost invariably seek the explanation for the results exclusively in the ruling party’s behaviour. There has, in fact, been hardly any effort to look at the behaviour of the opposition—both in what it did and it failed to do, that is – by way of explaining the outcome of the recent elections. It is therefore encouraging to see that some private media outlets and commentators have begun to break this habit by emphasizing the need to look at both ends of the political spectrum in order to put developments in the proper context. Less noticeable, to the point of absence until recently, has been an interest from local actors including notably the private media to make an in-depth analysis into the fundamental factors that have been largely responsible for the results. In a series of articles and very recently on its editorial, the English language weekly Fortune has been making quite interesting analyses into the factors that contributed to the EPRDF’s landslide victory and to the opposition’s loss. Rather than harping on the same old string of blaming the ruling party for everything that went wrong in the opposition camp, it attempts to have a look at the opposition parties’ own overall preparedness, both in terms of a clear-cut political platform and reliable organizational structure and their possible impact on the outcome of the elections. Fortune’s pieces raise a number of valid issues and draw very interesting conclusions. This trend also seems to be followed to a varying extent by other media outlets as well. This attempt to get to the bottom of it all through an in-depth and comprehensive analysis is certainly helpful, not only out of fairness to the overall democratic process but also to the parties themselves by nudging them into making a serious, hard look at their own weaknesses and strengths. This is certainly a very constructive approach.
In stark contrast to these encouraging developments, however, there are still some media outlets that have difficulty coming to terms with the reality on the ground. There appears to be an obvious resentment on the part of some detractors of the government not just in the election result but more importantly in the peaceful and calm conclusion of the elections. The VOA Amharic service and its cabal of nay-sayers are leading the charge in this campaign to extend the wrangling over the electoral process beyond its shelf life. It is not the first time that the VOA Amharic service has meddled in the internal affairs of Ethiopia. It has long served as the voice of the rejectionist elements of the Diaspora-based opposition. In fact, the VOA’s open campaign against the government of Ethiopia has reached a point where some of the opposition figures don’t seem to believe voices other than theirs should be allowed on VOA. Although VOA’s campaign to discredit the electoral process in the country got off to a wrong start with the conduct of the elections, it is still trying to tap into what little is left of rejectionist tendencies among some of the legal opposition. Virtually all of its coverage since the conclusion of the elections is meant to stir up emotions within opposition supporters in the vain hope that this would create an opportunity to create unchecked momentum against the government. Out of their depth, they are now leaving no stone unturned to see to it that violence once again takes over in the streets of Addis. The opposition leaders appearing on the show are directly or indirectly being told to reject the result of the elections - a not-so-subtle message to take their complaints to the streets. This obsession has reached extremely morbid levels.
Clearly, there is bitterness on the part of the people at VOA Amharic service on account of the election results. The fact that the post-election scenario has been decidedly calm has compounded that bitterness even more as it was hoped that, if not the results of the elections, at least post-election disturbances would further complicate matters for the incumbent. The VOA is still rooting for violence of some kind, publicly goading some leaders of the opposition into the kind of rejectionist tendency that helped set the tone for the street violence following the 2005 elections.
But the circumstances today do not augur well for the morbid hopes of the prophets of doom at VOA-Amharic service. Nor is their mutual-flattery with some of the rejectionist elements in the opposition going to bear out their hopes of discrediting the legitimacy of the elections. As the encouraging trends within the private press indicate, the time of smear has given way to reason and sober judgment. Even more reassuringly, the peoples of Ethiopia have emphatically disowned any violent overtures, much less fallen into the kind of pitfalls the VOA is busy trying to put in place. In fact, this election has proven loud and clear that Ethiopia’s democracy will outlive the dying voices of rejectionism generations down the line. That the nay-sayers are getting even louder is borne out of this realization.