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Africa Expert Skeptical About Ethiopian Elections Being Democratic

An Africa expert is skeptical about Ethiopia’s election on May 23rd being genuinely democratic. Jennifer Cooke is the Director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. She calls the vote “a classic case of a state that takes on the trappings of a democracy while dispensing with all the fundamental rights and freedoms that really are at the core of a democratic process.”

Taking into account the government’s actions of harassment, violence and intimidation over the past two years, she says ”you cannot call this election free and fair.”

Carter Center will not participate

The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia -- highly credited and renowned as an observer in international elections -- will neither participate as an observer of these elections nor comment on them. Cooke says the Center was only allowed a “snapshot,” or brief period ahead of the elections, to be involved, so she thinks that’s why it chose not to participate:

“If they’re not able to observe over a longer period of time to look at freedoms of association and assembly, potential harassment and intimidation that goes on, they don’t want to legitimize an election day that may be technically competent, and without violence, but that doesn’t take into account everything that has preceded it.”

She gives as an example governmental denial of funds to politically oriented non-governmental organizations which, she says, clamps down on any NGO’s ability to educate specifically on opposing views and advocate for them. Other examples include “a fairly oppressive media law” and harassment of opposition leaders. Some have been killed or imprisoned, she says, “The violent crackdown after the last election in 2005 has really kind of cowed and silenced many of the opposition groups.”

Again, violence?

Following the last national vote five years ago, the government cracked down on protesters killing 200 and injuring many more. Cooke thinks the Melis government will be prepared now and not be taken by surprise from protests in the streets:

“The opposition may be thinking the same,” she continued, “ believing that protests will be met with a violent response by the government. So, you may actually not see much violence simply because of the fear there, and the really brutal response to the last election outcome.”

Cooke says she doesn’t expect a free and fair or credible election and that the Meles government will stay firmly in control,” really controlling the state machinery down to the local level.”

When asked, under these circumstances, why have elections at all, Cooke says that Ethiopia, as well as other countries, take on the image of a democracy in order to boost their credibility, possibly in the eyes of the international community. However, she says that, in her opinion, they really have no intention of ceding power or “opening political space.”