The first election 2010 poll -- EPRDF loses debate series

By Eskinder Nega / May 14, 2010
No poll has been conducted on election 2010 to date, not even by the little read English weeklies, which have broader leeway than the closely-monitored (by the state) Amharic newspapers. But whether sanctioned or prohibited, this would have been inconceivable if pre-2005 newspapers were around. Defying the EPRDF (and paying the price), so passé for existing newspapers which have been massively rejected by the public, as their circulation numbers sadly show. But I read them.), was in fact the raison d'être of existence for pre-2005 newspapers. Needless to say, this election would have been much more engaging had they not been illicitly banned. (Hopefully, their absence will in the future be partially redressed by Ethiopian radios and TVs on ArabSat.)

With these nostalgic thoughts in mind, a group of journalists teamed up to do what would be the first poll of this election season. Be warned, however, this is by no means a scientific poll; our limitations are obvious. But we are confident that some semblance of truth could be revealed, if only by way of a larger margin of error than is usual for scientific polls.

The first hurdle we had to cross was picking sample respondents on the basis of specific statistical criteria. Alas, it was a trial test we failed before the go. Ethiopia is a relatively large and diverse country; a nationwide reach requires an extensive network (because phone interviews are impractical). So the imperative was to scale down to Addis, which was logistically and economically feasible. Respondents were then selected on the basis of ethnicity, region and class. Unfortunately, through no fault of ours, we were unable to enlist as many Muslims and females as we had wanted to.

The second task was to frame the questions. We were adamant that they should be fair, unbiased and offer a balanced set of choices. That needed a series of meetings and hours of debate, but we finally did agree on a set of questions, which were reviewed and endorsed by several notable public figures. The questionnaires were then finally distributed to respondents, who were instructed to fill them out immediately after each airing of the debates between political parties on state media. But by then two debates had already taken place, and so only seven of the nine debates were to be gauged.

But first, we inquired which issues matter most to our subjects, and the results were surprising and familiar at the same time. We asked our respondents to list the top five issues that matter most to them. Leading the field by far is inflation, with a whopping 77 % listing it as their top concern. Then came jobs scarcity, 65%. Democracy stood at third place with 62%. The issue of Ethiopia’s outlet to the sea still figures prominently at fourth place, almost two decades after the secession of Eritrea, with 57%. ( Most participants were between the ages of 30 to 40.) Ethnic division, for which the EPRDF is mostly blamed, came at fifth place with 53%.

The questionnaire asked the respondents to rate the parties on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being total failure, 10 being excellent - except for negativity where the reverse holds) for:

  1. knowledge and experience of issue
  2. composure and discipline of debaters
  3. honesty and sincerity
  4. negativity
  5. oratory

There was room for remarks next to each rating space, and many of them wrote their impressions.

There were a total of nine debates until May 14, a week before the elections. The topics were: democracy and pluralism, federalism and decentralization, education, health, good governance, human rights and rule of law, agriculture and land ownership, foreign policy, urban development and industry, and infrastructure.

On Education, the EPRDF (which was represented by two people, including the Education Minister, Demeke Mekonen) scored an average of 5 for knowledge, composure, honesty and oratory of its debaters. But it scored a high 8 on negativity, which is bad (The lower the score for negativity the better). It’s overall performance was just below the mean. Medrek (which was represented by a veteran of the Education Ministry, Asrat Tase) too scored an average of 5 for knowledge, but was rated at an average of 6 in other areas. In the crucial negativity index (most respondents strongly disapproved of excessive disagreeability and hostility) it stood at an impressive low of 3, enabling it to pull ahead of the EPRDF in this debate. But on the bottom of each questionnaire is a question that reads, "How do you rate this debate?", and gives three alternatives: exciting, average, dull. 52% of the respondents marked dull, 21 % average and only 17 % exciting.

(For lack of space I will be detailing only the results of Medrek and EPRDF--- the two largest political organizations competing in this election. The full survey will be published as part of a book on the election at some point in the future.)

On health, the result of the EPRDF is quite mixed. It was represented by the Minister of Health, Dr Tewodros Adhanom. Perhaps on account of the articulate delivery by the Minister, the EPRDF scored above average on knowledge and experience, an average of 7. Redwan Hussien, EPRDF’s star of this election season, earned good marks for his oratory. But he also devastated his party by his visible negativity -- which earned the EPRDF a whooping average of 9. In other areas, they garnered an average of 6. In contrast, the calm bearing of Professor Beyene, who represented Medrek, was given high marks, an average of 7, in all spheres (the quality of health care, which was stressed by Beyene, resonated with many respondents); save that of oratory, for which the Professor earned only 5. This was a battle that the EPRDF could have won (by way of its avalanche of statistics and reasonable record) if only it was capable of showing a little bit of humility. It lost because of the way it delivered its message (who likes a bully?) rather than on substance.

On good governance and human rights, Medrek fielded Gebru Asrat, whose oratory had completely escaped him on that day. This was duly noted by the respondents, who gave him only an average 3 for oratory and composure. But that was compensated by high points for honesty and knowledge, an average of 7, and significantly for negativity, an average of only 2; the lowest in this poll. The EPRDF, on the other hand, was perceptibly belligerent, yet again represented by the fiery Redwan Hussien, who characteristically earned high marks for his oratory, but an embarrassingly low one for honesty, an average of 2. (Not surprising, considering the issue.) EPRDF’s lingering high rating for negativity, another average of 9, was inevitable; this being the one issue where it was clearly on the defensive. This was one debate the EPRDF should have lost heavily, but it was to escape relatively unscathed by the opposition. Lidetu Ayalew, who represented his party, EPD, also earned high marks for his oratory and composure, but he did more damage to the opposition than the EPRDF, according to several comments by the respondents. The debate was marked as exciting by 24%, average by 33% and dull by 43%.

On Foreign Relations, in which Medrek was represented by Seye Abraha, Medrek scored its highest points. In knowledge, composure, honesty and oratory it averaged an impressive 8, and on negativity a low of 3. The EPRDF by contrast, chiefly represented by Arkebe Ekubay, whose expertise on foreign relations is at best murky, clearly lost by registering an average of 3 for knowledge, composure, and honesty. Thanks to Redwan, it scored an average of 8 for negativity; but also a respectable 7 for oratory. The EPRDF lost heavily to Mederk in this debate, a fact that is acknowledged by its members and sympathizers. 41% marked the debate as exciting; it was average for 38% and dull for 21%, the lowest in this survey. The debates on land ownership, urban development and infrastructure were areas in which Medrek was also rated higher than the EPRDF, its negativity and shrill denunciations of the opposition losing it the favor of many respondents. But the significant result of those surveys were the percentage that rated them as dull: 54% for urban development, 56% for land ownership, and 44% for infrastructure. No debate was marked as exciting by a majority. “Many people I know did not watch the debates,” wrote one respondent.” The EPRDF may have stolen the thunder from the debates by overruling live transmission, but it has also become a towering symbol of its bullying tactics, inviting a backlash from voters. It will remain to be seen next week if voters will punish it for its impertinence, and if their votes will be counted fairly.

But, please, don’t hold your breath in the meantime.


Medrek denied rally permit

The bid to repeat the massive turnout by the public in support of the opposition in 2005 on the last day of the campaign season by Medrek was struck down by the Addis Ababa administration, which is led by Corporal Kuma Demeksa, by refusing to issue a permit for a mass rally at Meskel Square for the coming Sunday. “It would have been a turning point for this election,” said a member of pundit. Medrek has now applied for permit to hold a rally inside Addis Ababa’s stadium, which has a maximum capacity of 30,000. A decision is pending as this article is being finalized. Other parties have booked a final series of public meetings in halls around the city.

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: