Terrence Lyons, Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University
Jane Gaffney, Director for East Africa at the U.S. Department of State
Chris Albin-Lackey, Human Rights Watch
Ambassador Kassahun Ayele, Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States
At an afternoon panel discussion at the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) cosponsored by the Woodrow Wilson's Africa Program, Terrence Lyons, Jane Gaffney, Chris Albin-Lackey and Ambassador Kassahun Ayele expressed their views on the future of democracy in Ethiopia following the elections of May 15, 2005.
The seemingly free and fair elections were marred by an outbreak of violence in Addis Ababa on June 7 and 8 in which 36 unarmed protesters were killed and hundreds wounded, leaving observers to ask whether a new era of pluralism and multi-party collaboration in Ethiopia is possible, or whether the country will return to single party dominance and possibly find itself immersed in violence.
Terrence Lyons reviewed Ethiopia's election history identifying the elections of May 15, 2005 as the first elections in which Ethiopians had a choice. The active engagement of opposition parties in the campaigning process and a new awareness on the part of the Ethiopian people that it is safe and possible to vote against the government resulted in unprecedented constituent diversity in every region.
Despite the expulsion of international observers and reports of intimidation in the countryside prior to the election, Dr. Lyons argued that the election laid the foundation for a potentially critical turning point in Ethiopian politics, away from single party dominance, towards multi-party collaboration. The violence of June 7 and 8, however, overshadows the success of the election and casts doubt on Ethiopia's ability to make such a transition. From his personal observations of the 2005 elections, Dr. Lyons explained that the question remains, can the leaders of the opposition who are interested in power-sharing work with leaders in the government or will violence prevail?
Jane Gaffney, representing the State department, congratulated Ethiopians on the high voter turnout and on Ethiopia's progression towards democracy. However, she reiterated that the United States government condemns the use of violence and explained that the US administration became concerned when political parties started to claim victory long before the official announcement date of July 8. She encouraged all Ethiopian political parties to reach out to each other and abide by the rule of law as a means of making the election results meaningful and representative of Ethiopia's commitment to democracy and development prosperity.
In his statement, the Ambassador confirmed the legitimacy of the elections and supported the government's use of force against protestors as necessary to prevent the country from experiencing wide-spread unrest. While extending condolences for the loss of life, he argued that the National Election Board's Investigation Panel was established to address any grievances or formal complains concerning the election process with the intent of making public protests unnecessary. The procedures of the Investigative Panel, if well observed, should facilitate the country's return to stability.
Mr. Albin-Lackey, representing Human Rights Watch, called on the international community to consider the government's past human rights record as a barometer for the country's future democratic status, rather than the events of the past few weeks. He urged that the government's history of repression and unwillingness to adequately address criticism of its human rights record is more telling of the direction Ethiopia is likely to take. Consequently, he stated that both individuals in the government and in the international community should come together to deal with the issues of human rights in Ethiopia in order to ensure a democratic future.
The participants addressed several questions concerning the public's perception of the judicial system in Ethiopia, the most constructive steps forward, impartiality of the National Election Board, considering that its chairman is also the President of the Supreme Court, and the necessity of such a long interval between the actual elections in May and the announcement of the results in July.
In their responses, participants affirmed the widespread respect of the Ethiopian people for the country's judicial system, and recognized that claims of partiality and lack of neutrality are to be expected in a contested election. They encouraged the resolution of disputes within the established judicial frameworks and called for all parties to take responsibility for the actions and rhetoric of their followers.
When asked about the implication of the May 15 elections on the local elections scheduled to be held in 2006, Dr. Lyons concluded that if all goes well, Ethiopia is on the verge of a new era of pluralism. However, if the opposition withdraws and the country returns to a single party state, the election will have been nothing but a stale exercise. The country's direction is not set, and both the international community and individual Ethiopians have the ability to embolden those interested in multi-party collaboration.
The panelists concluded by applauding Ethiopia's effort to move towards free elections and democracy despite the violence that followed.
Georgina Graidage, Program Associate, Program on Leadership and Building State Capacity, ext. 4083
Howard Wolpe, Director