Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-ETHIOPIA: Opposition Digs in its Heels Over Election Results

Andrew Heavens

ADDIS ABABA, Jun 1 2005 (IPS) - Ethiopia’s national elections were heading to a stormy conclusion this week as the country’s two largest opposition groupings refused to accept provisional results showing that the ruling party had held on to power.

The main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) threatened to boycott the next parliamentary session and hold protests if its claims of irregularities in 139 constituencies were not investigated properly.

The CUD, which claims to be the real winner of the May 15 poll, also went to court to stop the National Election Board from publishing contested results, on the grounds that this favoured the government. In addition, the coalition asked judges to lift the recent ban on public demonstrations in the capital, Addis Ababa.

International observers said the poll had been broadly free and fair, although a team from the European Union noted later that delays in the vote count and bias in the state media may have opened the door to abuses.

Results which trickled in over the weekend indicated that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had won an overall majority in parliament.

Against the EPRDF’s provisional tally of about 300 seats, the two main opposition coalitions had just under a third of the total. Clinching more constituencies to gain control of over a third of seats (upwards of 182) is no small matter for the opposition, as this will allow it to block legislation in certain instances – or at least demand concessions from government.

According to figures released late Tuesday, the CUD and its partner – the Ethiopian United Democratic Forces (EUDF) – had so far won an unprecedented 175 seats, including a clean sweep of the 23 up for grabs in Addis Ababa.

“If we can get at least one third of seats in the house, then we can do business,” Beyene Petros, vice chair of the EUDF, told IPS. But, “With a two-thirds majority that parliament would be another rubber stamp. I’m tired of that. I sat through that for five years and in the end I got fed up.”

At present, a two-thirds majority in the legislature is required for a variety of important decisions, including those on proposed changes to the constitution. Members of parliament also need the support of at least a third of the legislature to start a debate or get a vote on a particular issue.

Beyene said it was too early to say which new laws opposition parties would try to block – or which bills they would seek to introduce on their own initiative.

“It would be premature to name any specific initiatives. But urban issues will be of concern.”

The contested matter of land ownership for subsistence farmers was another issue of importance.

“We’re not talking about a new land policy, but do these peasants have any title deeds to the piece of land they own? These kinds of things can be introduced and looked at,” said Beyene.

Even if the opposition fails to secure a third of the seats in parliament, the gains made in last month’s poll represent a notable improvement on its performance during previous elections. Ethiopia’s outgoing parliament was dominated by the EPRDF, which controlled just under 88 percent of the 547 seats.

On Wednesday, Ethiopian Information Minister Netsanet Asfaw acknowledged the scale of the opposition victory in Addis Ababa and other areas. However, she ascribed this more to dissatisfaction with the country’s current rate of development than any particular enthusiasm for opposition parties.

“Unemployment could have been one of the factors. Rates may not be as high as in other countries but we have unemployment. We are trying to create jobs but that does not mean we are running as fast as people want us to run.”

The National Election Board, responsible for supervising last month’s poll, agreed earlier this week to set up a committee made up of representatives of all political parties to investigate complaints of irregularities in more than 200 constituencies.

However, board chairman Kemal Bedri cautioned that complaints about polling in a constituency would have to be substantive in order for the body to take action there: “Re-election can be ordered only when the irregularities committed are believed to determine the final outcomes in that constituency.”

The CUD welcomed the formation of the new joint committee, Wednesday.

“But,” said coalition vice chair Berhanu Nega, “we have also made it clear that any attempt to circumvent this process, any attempt to hold on to power by force will not be accepted. And we will prepare to take all kinds of peaceful and legal measures.”

“One of the peaceful options in our arsenal is to decide whether or not to be part of such an illegal government,” he added. “But this is too early to make any decision.” Other protest options that were mentioned ranged from organising general strikes to closing schools and blocking trade and transport.

The National Election Board still has 15 seats to declare from the election. Voting in Ethiopia’s southern Somali region, which has 23 seats, has been delayed until August 21.

Election officials say they plan to announce the final polling results on Jun. 8, once all alleged irregularities have been investigated.

The new parliament, which will serve for a five-year term, is also responsible for nominating Ethiopia’s prime minister. Meles Zenawi, the current head of government, is expected to gain a third term in office if the EPRDF maintains its parliamentary majority.

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