The registration of voters for the local elections due in April throughout the country was completed last weekend with nearly thirty million voters registered. According to the National Electoral Board the exact number was 29,905, 518, an impressive percentage of the estimate of eligible voters of 34.5 million. In addition to the Woreda (district) and Kebele elections, voting will also be taking place for the Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa City administrations. The voting day for the woreda, kebele and the city administrations will be April 14th. President Girma Woldegiorgis in his opening speech to the joint session of the House of People’s Representatives and the House of Federation on October 8th last year underlined that "Political parties are expected to move our democracy another step forward by competing in the elections while respecting all constitutional regulations." A significant number of opposition parties have already expressed their interest in participating in the election; it is to be hoped all will do so and engage seriously in this crucial democratic process.

These local elections follow the successful completion of a fully democratic transition of power following the death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The late Prime Minister contributed a great deal to the prevailing peace, economic growth and democratic development of the last two decades, and these elections will continue the process. President Girma noted in his October speech to Parliament that the country would continue to demonstrate “impressive improvement and progress in the speeding up of democratization and social development” with the government taking various measures to ensure the rights of citizens, to strengthen democracy and to bring about good governance. He underlined the importance of the different parties freely participating in national and regional elections every five years and in the local elections as well. The President noted that the government would, as usual, do all it could “to provide financial and media assistance to all the parties involved in the elections.”

The voters understand the importance of these elections to provide local government for theWoreda and Kebele administrations. Ethiopians exercised electoral democracy by determining the composition of local governments through the ballot box for the first time ever in June 1992. This is a crucial component of the democratic developmental state. The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia underlines that direct participation of the people is the manifestation of their sovereignty. The Constitution under Article 8 (3) states that "The sovereignty of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia shall be expressed through their representatives elected in accordance with this Constitution and through their direct, democratic participation." Article 38 (1) says that "Every Ethiopian national has the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly and through freely chosen representatives". In Article 50 (4), it lays down that "State Government shall be established at State and other administrative levels that they find necessary. Adequate power shall be granted to the lowest units of government to enable the People to participate directly in the administration of such units."

In line with these constitutional principles, Ethiopia conducted local elections in 1996 and 2001, a year after the first and second national and regional elections of 1995 and 2000. The local election of 2006, however, had to be postponed. Following the post-election violence after the 2005 national and regional election of 2005, the government felt obliged to address the problem through nation-wide public consultations on administrative problems and launched national consensus-building discussions. It felt obliged to enhance the administration’s capacity to organize a free, fair and peaceful electoral process. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front voluntarily committed itself to a long and meticulous round of consultation with opposition parties to achieve agreement on the necessary improvements to the electoral processes and institutions of the democratic process, including changes to the election law and re-organization of the National Electoral Board.

In addition, the government also felt it necessary to restore confidence in the electoral process by re-affirming the rule of law. Those responsible for the violence were arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced by the courts. The trials affirmed the equality of all before the law and the necessity to abide by the law. Subsequently, the government accepted the petition for pardons of those convicted in accordance with the supremacy of the Constitution.

After this crucial ground-laying, the next local elections were held in 2008. These had two additional elements. One was the parallel election for the Addis Ababa City Administration, previously held along with the National and Regional elections. The reason for this was because the opposition parties, which won an overwhelming victory in the election for the Addis Ababa Council in 2005, had refused to take up their seats. They had tried to use this as a bargaining element in opposition demands for the formation of a coalition government at the Federal level where the EPRDF had equally clearly won. Following this refusal, the government had to appoint a caretaker administration. The first opportunity to provide for a new election came in 2008 and the city elected its Council members alongside the local Woreda and Kebele elections.

Another important change in 2008 was the increase in the numbers elected for the Woreda andKebele administrations. The numbers of seats in each Kebele Council was increased to around 300. The councils meet at least quarterly to discuss the performance of the Kebele and Woredaadministrations as well as other issues concerning their electors. These representatives are also organized into a number of standing and ad-hoc committees which follow various aspects of local administration on regular basis. They also help to encourage and organize public participation and organization through networking activities in the Kebele and in traditional social organizations like ‘edir’ and ‘equb’.

The much better organized and stronger EPRDF won an overwhelming victory in the local elections of 2008 on the back of policies that had produced the country’s steadily improving economic growth over several years. By contrast, several of the opposition parties collapsed into internecine struggles for leadership after 2005. They also continued to display a very visible lack of interest in local elections as indeed they had done since 1992. This indeed is one obvious reason for the lack of success of opposition parties in the more recent national and regional elections. Opposition parties consistently appear to neglect local elections, apparently considering they offer insufficient scope for the sort of the changes in the democratic developmental nature of the state that they would prefer. Their leaders also largely seemed to prefer the national stage, and only very few were prepared to make the lengthy preparations to build up popular support at local level necessary to build up an effective democratic political organization and campaign regularly at the local level. Local elections, of course, are more about service delivery rather than abstract rhetoric matter and are elections in which any lack of vision, disinterest in local issues, gaps in programs, breakdown of discipline or organ
izational capacity are ruthlessly revealed.

Today, neither the public, nor the government, has any interest in such short-sighted calculations. The government is very aware that it is time to consolidate the participatory character of local government and entrench the democratic elements of the developmental state. The people have already learnt local participation provides the means to achieve their gains from development and strengthen their say in the democratic process and the country’s governance. It is expected that once again voters will turn out in record numbers to exercise their constitutional rights by electing their representatives for nearly a thousand Woredas and some 30,000 Kebele administrations and for the City Administrations of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. The government is, as usual, committed to create a favorable environment for a peaceful and successful election.


* Originally published on A Week in the Horn – February 8, 2013 issue, titled “Ethiopia: Registration for April’s Local Elections completed”. Items from A Week in the Horn are re-published here with a permission to do so. You may republish it with attribution and no modification to its contents.

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