By Felix Horne (for Al Jazeera),
THIS is what an election campaign looks like in Ethiopia, where the ruling coalition took 99.6 percent of parliamentary seats in the last national elections, in 2010.
Jirata, not his real name, is a 19-year-old student who was campaigning for a legally registered opposition party recently, when security officials arrested him.
They told him that he was working for a “terrorist group” that sought to forcibly bring down the government. He was badly beaten over the course of three nights and released on the condition that he end his involvement in politics. He is still limping from his injuries, and he told me he no longer has any interest in getting involved in politics. He says he will vote for the government party “because life is easier that way”.
Jirata was working for an Oromo party, representing an ethnic group long targeted by the government. But as Ethiopians go to the polls in late May, the prospects for opposition parties to fully and fairly campaign are grim.
Since the last election, the ruling party has only exerted more control and increased its widespread repression of basic liberties, including the rights to free expression, assembly, and association.
The courts provide no justice in cases of political importance. While election day is unpredictable, it’s clear that the avenues by which opposition parties can fully function and citizens can engage on political issues are largely closed.
While there are 75 registered opposition groups, several of the largest parties have talked of boycotting the elections because of flawed electoral processes. Challenges with registering candidates, acquiring the funds they are legally entitled to, mobilizing their supporters, and keeping their members out of prison have taken their toll.
Suppression of Non-governmental Voices
The Ethiopian media provides little coverage of relevant political issues ahead of the election since what vestiges of independent media existed have largely been eliminated since 2010.
Reporters critical of the government are regularly harassed, threatened and detained. In 2014 alone, over 30 journalists fled Ethiopia and at least six publications were closed down.
Sources providing information to media and human rights groups are regularly targeted. Many diaspora media websites, while heavily politicised, remain blocked in Ethiopia. Journalists must choose between self-censorship, harassment, imprisonment, and exile.
The situation hasn’t been much better for opposition parties that want to organise peaceful protests and rallies ahead of the election. The Semayawi party (Blue Party), for example, is one of the newcomers in Ethiopia’s electoral landscape, and since 2013 has tried to hold regular and peaceful issue-based protests.
Protesters and organizers have frequently been arrested and harassed, their equipment has been confiscated, and permits unfairly denied. One of their leaders is on trial on trumped-up terrorism charges.
The lone opposition parliament member is not running this time due to a split in his party, the Union of Democracy and Justice, in which Ethiopia’s national electoral board played favourites. The net effect is that the government awarded the party name to an offshoot of the party that is more closely aligned to government policies and interests.
No Dissent Allowed
There are few ways for Ethiopians to peacefully express dissent or to contribute to the national political dialogue. Dissent of any type, particularly in rural areas, is dealt with harshly. The long-standing 5:1 system of grassroots surveillance – under which one individual is responsible for monitoring the activities of five households – has let local officials clamp down on dissent before it spreads beyond the household level. Telephone surveillance is commonplace, and the ongoing trial of a group of bloggers called Zone 9 has resulted in increased self-censorship online.
In short, there is limited space for government critics to play a peaceful and constructive role. The only international observers to the election will be the African Union. The European Union is not sending observers, noting that Ethiopia has not implemented recommendations by previous election observers. As Human Rights Watch documented after the 2010 elections, those who complain about election irregularities risk arrest and harassment.
“If we have an issue with government where do we go?” an Ethiopian who lives in a rural area recently told me, summing it up: “There is no media that will write our story, there are no more organizations that work on issues that the government does not like, if we take to the streets we are arrested, and if we go to their office to question we are called terrorists. If we go to the courts, there is no independence – we go to jail. There are no large opposition parties to vote for in the election, and even if there were, if we vote for them our lives then become very difficult. So what can we do? The elections are just another sign of our repression.”
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Felix Horne is a Horn of Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.