Takeaways from Election 2015 result

One word best describes the new parliament that will start its first year in September–airtight. In want can be considered as a textbook example of a clean sweep, the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its allies, will go down in the history books as a party that defied all odds and secured a victory that has never been anticipated before in Ethiopia’s political landscape. The overwhelming landslide has been a shock for many including the opposition for whom the light at the end of the tunnel seem to be fading away, writes Mikias Sebsibe.

Since his appointment nearly ten years ago, Merga Bekana (Prof.) had overseen two general elections as chairman of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). The outcomes of both general elections under the watchful eyes of the reputed former veterinary medicine lecturer have astonished both national and international observers. In the 2010 general election the incumbent won 99.6 percent of parliamentary seats and this year, it bettered the feat to 100 percent. Inevitably questions were being asked as to the democratic nature of the electoral process, including the independence of the board, as well as the overall political environment in the country.

While announcing the final results of the fifth general elections to local and international media on Monday June 22 at Hilton Hotel, Merga began by describing the election process as “free, fair, peaceful, credible and democratic”. Not all agree with such characterizations, however. For one, the outcome and the process have been rejected by almost all of the major opposition political parties who failed to win a single seat in the 547-seat parliament. In its defense, NEBE says none of the political parties have lodged formal complaints regarding voting day irregularities.

For another, the African Union election observer mission, the only international election observer, stopped short of describing the election as “free and fair”. However, the AU observers mission used the adjective “credible”. And a credible election, according to some scholars, means that the election: reflects the will of the people; participated all qualified political parties; process is trusted by the public and saw an acceptable number of voter turnout.

Merga’s election result announcement on Monday confirmed early projections of the election results of an unprecedented landslide for the ruling party. However, here are four takeaways from the final election result of the 2015 fifth general election.       

100%

Save the result from one constituency, Gimbo-Gewata in the Southern Regional State, the fifth general election have concluded with the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its allies winning a historic 100 percent or all of the 547 parliamentary seats. Although the result from Gimbo-Gewata is not approved by the NEBE due to formal complaints filed by independent candidate Ashebir Woldegiorgis, the incumbent has won 79.29 percent of the popular votes. Ashebir, who came second with 17.7 percent of the votes, has alleged irregularities on voting day.

A clean sweep of all parliamentary seats is unprecedented since the ruling EPRDF assumed power 24 years ago. It is also an extreme rarity in democratic elections. However, it has happened before, in Singapore. In its first general elections as an independent nation in 1968, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) won all parliamentary seats. Banking on its economic success and effective government, PAP went on with a clean sweep of all parliamentary seats for another three successive elections. PAP’s poorest showing was in Singapore’s most recent election held in 2011, the ruling party won 81 out of 87 parliamentary seats.

Drawing comparison between the EPRDF and PAP would not be entirely uncanny. Both parties are accused of harassing the opposition, stifling independent media and are at constant loggerheads with international human rights organizations and labeled as pseudo democracies. At the same time both parties are credited for transforming the economies of their respective countries. The similarity is, at times, extended to individuals who led the respective parties for long–Lee Kuan Yew of PAP and Meles Zenawi of EPRDF who died in 2015 and August 2012, respectively.

But what is peculiar to Ethiopia’s 2015 general election is the manner EPRDF and its affiliates won the popular votes. As data from NEBE indicates, EPRDF and its affiliates have amassed 94.5 percent of the popular votes compared to 60.1 percent popular votes for PAP in Singapore. The total victory of EPRDF and its affiliates also extends to Regional State Council (RSC) seats winning all 1,987 seats.

The outcomes of the fifth general elections has sparked debates as to first-past-the-post electoral system is better suited for Ethiopia or whether a proportional or a hybrid electoral system should be adopted. But judging by NEBE’s figures, even the popular vote is heavily slanted towards the ruling party and its allies. As a result, many lay the blame on the political environment rather than the electoral system.

A 100 percent sweep of the parliamentary seats by one party does not seem to have been anticipated by the legislature itself. Some provisions within the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) rules of procedure, enacted in 2006, will be rendered ineffective. The Advisory Committee for the Speaker of HPR will not have a representation of an opposition member. There will also be no such thing as ‘Opposition Day’, where the house deliberates for an hour every month on an agenda presented by the opposition. In addition, the Public Accounts Standing Committee will not be chaired by an opposition MP – the first time since its inception ten years ago.

Since the announcement of early results, senior EPRDF officials have come out with reassuring statements that the government would not be bound by the existing structure, one of which is the Political Parties Council, to hear the voices unrepresented in the country’s legislature. However, the mechanisms of engagement are yet to be clearly spelled out.

If not varying political view, the house will have a more favorable gender composition of about 61/39 percent in favor of male.  

Beleaguered opposition

Although 52 political parties contested for HPR seats in the fifth general elections, the number of votes won by all of the opposition parties does not exceed 1.7 million – representing only 5.1 percent of the valid votes. Only Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum, a.k.a. Medrek won votes over the one million mark. Medrek, which fielded the highest number of candidates – 270 for HPR, took 64.3 percent of the votes that went to the opposition.

The major opposition parties rejected the 2015 general elections excluding the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ). Both are parties in which the NEBE stepped in to resolve their internal strife–CUD in the aftermath of the 2005 election and UDJ in the run-up to the 2015 election. However, major opposition parties rejecting the outcomes of elections are not a new phenomenon in the country’s election history.

The alarm bell for the opposition, however, began to be heard in the 2010 general elections the outcome of which saw them winning one seat each in HPR and RSC. The single seat in HPR was won by Medrek.

Aside from government harassment, fragmentation, poor public mobilization capacity and lack of clear policy alternatives are often cited as factors for opposition’s poor showing in elections.

EPRDF affiliates

The factors contributing for the incumbent’s 100 percent victory is its affiliation with six other smaller political parties. These parties won the remaining 46 seats in parliament out of which 24 are won by the Ethiopian Somali People’s Democratic Party. The party run uncontested in 22 of the 24 constituencies in Somali region.

In two regions–Gambella and Harar–the ruling party allies run uncontested–thus winning 100 percent of the votes and four HPR seats. In Harar, the ruling party is also represented by OPDO (Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization), one of the founding members. Whereas in Afar, EPRDF has two affiliates–Afar National Democratic Party and Argoba People Democratic Organization.   

Except for Benishangul Gumuz region, EPRDF affiliates took more than 90 percent of the popular votes. In Benishangul, the ruling party affiliate, the Benshangul Gumuz Peoples Democratic Party (BGPDP), won 81.3 percent of the votes while a regional political party–Gumuz Peoples Democratic Movement–came second. In the 2010 general election, it was in Benishangul Gumuz where the only regional council seat went to the opposition All Ethiopian Unity Organization (AEUP).

The result from the 2015 general elections by EPRDF affiliates may not come as a surprise given the fact that opposition parties rarely field candidates in these regions. Even during the highly contested 2005 general elections, the opposition failed to win a single seat out of the 46.

Invalid ballots

According to the NEBE, the turnout for the fifth general elections stands at 93.2 percent (34.4 million people). The turnout is almost similar to the election five years ago. Of the total ballots casted, nearly 1.4 million or 3.3 percent are adjudged invalid. The dismal performance of the opposition meant that even the number of invalid ballots exceeds the number of votes won by any single opposition party.

According to some studies, the global average proportion of invalid votes is slightly less than three percent. In some countries, a higher than normal rate of invalid votes may lead to a recount.  There are no such rules in Ethiopia. India, dubbed by some as the largest democracy, is often cited as country where there are a high proportion of invalid votes. But the introduction of electronic voting system have rectified the problem.

According to Ethiopia’s electoral laws, a ballot paper is deemed invalid where the identity of the elector is disclosed, the ballot paper is not marked or difficult to determine the intention of the voter, voted for more candidates than the allowed. But as was witnessed during vote counting in some polling stations, discarding ballots as invalid was not always a clear cut conclusion. 

Invalid ballots mostly reflect on the level of voters’ education or instructions given to polling staffs. But it sometimes has to do with protest votes where some voters consciously chose cast empty ballots or scribble other messages.