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On May 15, 2005, Ethiopia will hold national elections.  These elections are seen by many observers as an important indicator of Ethiopia’s progress toward democracy.2  In anticipation of the international scrutiny these elections will receive, the Ethiopian government pushed through a number of electoral reforms that could make these elections appear more open and competitive than any previous national election.  Those reforms include granting opposition candidates access to state-owned media outlets, relaxing onerous registration requirements for opposition candidates, and inviting international observers to monitor the election process.  These reforms are a positive step.  But, if international observers focus solely on the mechanics of electioneering and the conduct of the vote on May 15, they could end up presenting a distorted picture of the current state of democracy in Ethiopia. 

For elections to be a meaningful exercise of citizens’ fundamental right to participate in the selection of a government, they must take place in an environment where all citizens have the opportunity to freely form and express their political ideas and voters are offered real choices among parties and candidates.  Unfortunately, that kind of freedom and choice does not exist in most of Ethiopia today.  It especially does not exist in the state of Oromia, which is home to roughly one-third of the Ethiopian population and the nation’s largest individual ethnic group, the Oromo.

International election monitors can perform an important role in the process of encouraging democratization.  Monitors need to look not only at what happens on election day but at the context in which elections are taking place to discover long-term, invidious repressive practices and human rights abuses in places like Oromia.  Those kinds of practices and abuses clearly determine whether or not elections can be meaningful expressions of citizens’ democratic will.3  Where, as in Oromia, a government systematically stifles and punishes dissent and uses its coercive power to prevent genuine opposition parties from emerging, even procedurally flawless elections cannot be regarded as meaningful expressions of the electorate’s political will.

[2] For example, on April 18, 2005, the Carter Center announced that former President Jimmy Carter will lead a delegation that will observe the elections; and Rachel Fowler, a senior associate at the Center, called the election “an important step in the consolidation of democracy since the 1991 transition.” Press Release, Carter Center, April 18, 2005.

[3] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Ethiopia ratified in 1993, provides that: “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity … [t]o take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives” and “[t]o vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), entered into force Mar. 23, 1976, article 25.

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