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Ethiopia elections: Can the EU effectively monitor?
The Ethiopian press corps put Thijs Berman, the EU’s chief observer for the country’s May 23rd elections, under some serious pressure at his first press conference since arriving last Wednesday – less than five weeks before the poll.
“Won’t you just rubberstamp a precooked election?” said one.
“How can you do your work with less than five weeks left?” another.
“You have 150 observers for 43,000 polling stations?!” a third.
Berman, a seasoned election monitor who has Afghanistan’s mess of a 2009 poll on his CV, took it all in his stride and even showed flashes of humour.
“If you need to examine a patient and you want to take his blood, you don’t need to take all of his blood. One drop is enough,” he said to laughter.
When the EU monitored Ethiopia’s last elections in 2005 it ended with spiteful accusations from both sides after Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi accused Europe’s then chief observer of helping incite post-election violence.
That European parliament MEP, Ana Gomes, says this poll will be a “farce”.
But it’s been all smiles and handshakes so far with Berman meeting Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and promising he is “not here to please any party.”
When the opposition claimed victory in 2005, Gomez immediately backed them, despite no voter polling being allowed before the vote. Government officials say she struck up inappropriately close relationships with opposition leaders.
Security forces then killed about 200 people in street riots and imprisoned the main opposition leaders. Meles insists his party won and that Gomez’s support for the opposition led to the protestors trying to overthrow him by force.
A Dutch socialist MEP, Berman refused to be drawn on the allegations against Gomez but described her as a “highly regarded and good colleague.”
Most Ethiopia analysts I’ve spoken to, who normally ask we don’t name them for fear they’ll be refused visas to the country they study, are against the mission.
They say, if there is fraud in the May poll, it will be of a sort that is difficult to detect and quantify. They say candidates have already been blocked from registering. They say people in remote areas are coerced or threatened into choosing the ruling party and, despite the ballot being secret, are told the government will “somehow, someway” know how they vote.
The analysts echo the opposition charge that the very presence of an EU mission – and the difficulty it will have working effectively in a huge country where more than two-thirds of people live two hours from a tarmac road – is at risk of being used by the government to legitimise the election even if there is widespread fraud.
The government and some European diplomats in capital Addis Ababa are irritated by a growing international narrative that the elections will not be democratic. They say the opposition – both in Ethiopia and in its diaspora community – is manipulating human rights groups and journalists into undermining the government before anyone has even been in a polling booth.
“I just wish people would hold their fire,” one diplomat told me recently. “Give the government their chance to improve on 2005 and just wait and see.”
So are the opposition and the cynical Addis press corps right? Has the election been “precooked”? Or should the government and the EU be given a chance?
PHOTO CREDIT: An Ethiopian woman stands in line outside a polling station in Addis Ababa on May 15th, 2005 REUTERS/Anthony Njuguna