The electoral board's unjust ruling against a re-run

By Eskinder Nega / June 11, 2010
The election board’s emotionally charged rejoinder to the opposition this week, in which it brusquely rejected a rerun of the election, surprised no one; least of all the opposition that in the words of one of its leaders, Merera Gudina, was soothingly testing the “integrity of institutions” in full view of the public and the international community. But many have qualms about the need when the prevailing convention is that the board has no integrity to be tested. And they may indeed be right. But exhausting the legal recourse, however discredited it may be, is imperative for a successful political and diplomatic offensive by the opposition in the future.

“The board is dismayed by the impertinence of Medrek to present alleged prejudices of the electoral board as one of the reasons for a rerun of the election,” said the concluding remarks of the board’s fiery letter to Medrek, the largest opposition. “Having failed to substantiate the allegations, the board rejects your request for a rerun of the election.” (Oddly, the letter was copied to “His Excellency Professor Merga Bekena, Chairperson of the Board.” Where was the Professor when the letter was being written, ask many pundits.)

Medrek’s eighty-seven page long petition for a rerun detailed ten complaints, and was supplemented by an assemblage of supporting documents. All of them, with no exception, were curtly rejected by the board. But it is noteworthy that only once, out of the ten instances in which board members voted, was a unanimous decision specified in the letter to Medrek. Admittedly, there is no evidence that they voted any other way in the remaining nine instances, but we could count on an official letter from the board not to tell us of dissenting voices even if there were some. The board is nominally headed by Merga Bekena, a soft spoken absent minded natural science Professor at AAU; but it is his deputy, the upperly mobile Adisu GebreEgzehaber, a PhD, and a genus of the dependable educated elite the EPRDF is working hard to nurture, that is the power that is to be reckoned with. (The EPRDF, by the way, is still wary of most of the educated elite regardless of class and ethnicity, a legacy of its anti-establishment roots.) This is a board specifically tailored for a post-2005 Ethiopia, none expect its members to sway from the official line; which is why any dissent would be a significant political bombshell.

Medrek’s first complaint, which, according to the letter it received from the board, was struck down by a unanimous vote, detailed a voters registration process skewed in favor of the EPRDF. The second complaint was also about registration, though this time it was that of candidates, which the board also rejected. “Medrek’s Secretary General had come to our office and thanked us personally about the multiple extensions of the registration process,’ said the board in its letter. “And that clearly shows the extra length we had gone to serve all parties impartially.” The third complaint was diffidently conceded by the board, but was deemed insufficient “to warrant a rerun as you had requested.” But it promised to summon and penalize some of the board’s officials “in accordance with the law for abuse of their designated powers.” But these were isolated cases, insisted the board adamantly; outraging the opposition. “No nationwide pattern has been proved to the board.” Not true, told me a western diplomat. “We know that the irregularities were nationwide. We believe the opposition.”

The fifth complaint elicited, what is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating -- and revealing -- response from the board. “You have been unable to prove that the public meetings summoned by Medrek had been disrupted by ruling party members,” wrote the board, refusing to tackle the issue of disrupted meetings in Nazreth and Adwa -- both of which had not only attracted extensive media attention but were also publicly addressed by Meles Zenawi.( He had self-consciously denounced the disruptions.) Where were, it seems relevant to ask at this point, the board members when the incidents were in the national limelight, prominently exemplifying the narrowing of political space that in the words of EU observers had affected “both the process and outcome” of the election? Indubitably, they couldn’t have missed it if they were in Ethiopia; and there is no reason to suppose that they were all elsewhere.

The sixth complaint raised an intriguing constitutional question: could a seating member of a regional parliament run for a seat in federal parliament without resigning from his seat? This is exactly what Abadulla Gemeda, president of Oromia, did this year. If the answer is no, then his “victory” would have to be nullified. Lucky for him, however, the electoral board ruled in his favor. “It’s perfectly legal,” evaluated the board, yet again ruling against Medrek in rather snappish words.“There is no law that says otherwise.”

Down at number nine, the sensitive and well documented - by HRW, among others-- issue of food aid was raised. “Food aid was used to intimidate farmers. Suspension of aid was threatened against those who do not vote for the EPRDF,” complained the petition by Medrek. The board gave its shortest reply, only in one sentence. “No evidence has been presented to show food aid has been used as a campaign weapon.” But a report this week by IRIN, the UN news agency, affirms Medrek’s position: Yimer Ahmed, 45, an opposition candidate for the regional council in the central Amhara region, said his wife recently divorced him because his membership of an opposition party had kept their family from receiving US food aid. “Because life is hard, people are saying that being a member of the opposition will invite hunger,” he says. “This aid is coming through the government and without this aid they will starve, so they don’t want to have any problems with the government.”

At number 12 the board could not resist lashing out at EU Observers Mission, echoing the EPRDF line by implying that it has an ulterior motive. The issue was that of political party representatives, which the EU Observers Mission, in its preliminary report, said that only in about 50 percent of polling stations it monitored were Medrek representatives present. Medrek disputed the veracity of the election’s outcome in context of the absence of its observers in more than 50 percent of polling stations, and submitted the preliminary report as one of its supporting documents. “The EU observers scanned only 800 of the more than 44,000 polling stations,” responded the board bitterly. “And even then, rather than probing if representatives of other political representatives were present too, it chose, for reasons that are not clear, to specifically seek only Medrek’s observers. Furnishing this (EU observers report) as evidence (for lack of transparency on a large scale) is completely unacceptable.” But AEUP, the party that had fielded the most candidates after Medrek, and a signatory of the election code of conduct, was also cited by EU observers; who reported that its representatives were present in only 20 percent of polling stations they had screened. The board's astounding omission of this fact probably betrays a partisan’s compulsion to jump in the fry and take side against the EU Observers Mission in its row with the EPRDF.

It’s too early to ascertain how this will affect EU observer’s attitude towards the board, but this is clearly reason enough to pause and reassess their early impression; not because they have been slighted, but because the way the complaints were handled is a litmus test for the board’s objectivity and professional credentials. The board’s petulant letter to Medrek reveal what the opposition has always said: a board that is partisan in its outlook, methodology, sentiment, ruling and loyalty.

The writer, Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years in the limbo, Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: