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Ethiopia Election Monitoring, 2005

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Ethiopia Election Monitoring

2005 Legislative Elections      

Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest countries, but May 2005 saw the potential for its first ever genuinely competitive elections. In that year, the country was to hold parliamentary elections to decide the membership of the government. It was in many ways a culmination of events that had begun with the overthrow of the autocratic regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.[1] After that, a coalition government was put in place and soon the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had taken firm control, proceeding to dominate supposedly fair elections in 1995 and 2000. Human Rights Watch stated in a 2001 report on the 2000 election that “groups opposed to the government continued to face severe governmental restrictions” and “EPRDF affiliates were the sole contestants in in over 50 percent of constituencies…”[2] In 2005, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited the Carter Center to observe the parliamentary elections. As Ethiopia is a parliamentary republic, the head of government is a prime minister selected by that parliament and as such, these elections carried even more weight. At stake were the 547 seats in the House of the People’s Representatives. The Carter Center’s mission was to “provide an impartial assessment of the election process by evaluating the pre-election period; the May 15 voting, counting, and tabulation processes; the postelection phases, including the complaints investigation process, the August 21st reelections, and the Somali region elections.”[3]

The Center began its observation mission in January and was summarily impressed by the pre-election environment. Ethiopia features a population of over 100 million people belonging to over 80 ethnic groups and all 3 major Abrahamic religions, but political campaigning was extraordinarily civil, featuring an “unmatched level of political debate in the state-dominated electronic and print media and at public forums held across the country.”[4] Sitting Prime Minister Meles Zenawi met face to face with opposition leaders and heard their demands for an overhaul in electoral law and investigations into the controversial elections of 2000. The National Electoral Board (NEBE) was open and transparent, publishing its materials in English and Amharic and holding frequent press conferences. This was critical to dispelling notions among the opposition that “civil servants would be forced to act in the interests of the ruling party to retain their jobs.”[5] Poll worker training programs were evident and complaints appeals structures were formed. There were 37 political parties that fielded candidates, and all agreed to a comprehensive code of conduct and largely stuck to it. The Carter Center did note, however, certain incidents of material advantages on the part of the ruling EPRDF, as well as inflammatory rhetoric. Civil society was also active and well-coordinated, featuring over 30 observer groups and 3,000 observers. The Center lauded this, stating that “in a country as large as Ethiopia, where most voters are in rural and less accessible locations, domestic observation efforts are integral because they can mobilize larger numbers of observers with greater geographical coverage…”[6] International observer groups, however, were not always tolerated in good practice. Notable were the rejections of the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Overall though, the Center viewed the campaign to be “one of the strongest aspects of the 2005 election process.”[7]

Election Day saw a turnout of around 20 million people and, while logistical issues occurred, they were dealt with fairly efficiently. European Union observers stated in regard to these issues their “overall impression that they were not intentional but rather due to a certain lack of resources, knowledge, and experience of the electoral process.”[8] Trouble began in the counting and tabulation phase, however. Early preliminary results began to show a major victory for the opposition parties. After this, the Prime Minister declared a ban on public demonstration, the NEBE blocked access to tabulation centers, and hundreds of complaints were lodged. Official results, published three weeks afterwards, then demonstrated a seeming total reversal, showing the EPRDF winning handily. The official excuse for this significant delay was that “the ballots which students, who are eligible to vote at 18 years of age, were to cast while away at school would need to be returned to their home constituencies for counting.”[9] The opposition claimed fraud and unrest began to erupt in Addis Ababa. Strikes by taxi drivers and students began on June 6 and, in response, government security forces fired live ammunition, killing 40 protesters, an action which the Carter Center and other groups vehemently decried. Many who were not killed were injured and thousands were arrested.[10] In the wake of a possible complete breakdown of civic order, the government set up ad hoc dispute resolution centers, which opposition candidates claimed were inherently biased. The Carter Center lent credence to these claims with observations that some witnesses who gave testimony in the complaints trials admitted that they had sided with whoever paid them more.[11] This conflict resolution process actually deepened polarization as the NEBE held reelections in 31 constituencies that were in debate, and the EPRDF won every single one, capturing over 60 percent of the total seats in the House. The Carter Center noted that in the days preceding these reelections, their observers “received multiple reports of arrests, beatings, intimidation, loss of jobs, and harassment of supporters and party agents.”[12]

Somali Region elections were held after the main body of elections due to the Somali Region’s remoteness from the rest of the country, an action the Carter Center considered a mistake. These elections saw a complete breakdown of procedure, with evidence of a military presence inside polling booths, blank voter cards sold on the street, and widespread boycotts by opposition parties. Somali culture is also highly localized and nomadic, meaning that it was difficult to reconcile cultural barriers.[13]

The final results were announced on September 5, and the EPRDF won with 327 seats to opposition groups’ 174. As expected, opposition candidates dismissed the elections as a sham and a principal opposition party, the CUD, boycotted its own role in the parliament. The Carter Center noted that, while the opposition should be proud to increase its representation from 12 seats to 174, the EPRDF held clear advantages, the NEBE summarily failed in tabulation, and security forces failed to protect peoples’ rights. For these reasons and others, the Carter Center declared that the elections did not meet Ethiopia’s commitments.[14]

Developments Since Monitoring

After the election, principal leaders of the CUD were arrested by the government on charges of treason and genocide, but were released after an appeal from Amnesty International. A new opposition coalition was formed in the buildup to 2010 elections, but history seemed to repeat itself when preliminary polls showed the opposition winning a decisive victory, only to be reversed after unreasonable delays. The situation was so tense and the deterioration of the political environment so bad that the Carter Center refused to observe the elections and the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for the duration. European Union observers claimed that the elections featured significant intimidation and irregularities, and the EPRDF and its allies captured all but 2 seats, turning Ethiopia’s government essentially into a one-party state and “raising serious questions over the country’s democratic direction.”[15]

By 2015, the EPRDF had wiped out all opposition representation in the government, capturing every single seat along with its allies. Many international observation missions declined to be a part of it, and what little opposition was left lamented the elections as farcical. The New York Times reported that many people voted for the ruling coalition because they were told to or because “this country needs a government…they think there is no alternative.” The Times also reported one woman as saying that “officials taught her how to cast a ballot for the ruling party.”[16] The ruling coalition said in response that they won because they have improved Ethiopia’s economy, which is technically true in terms of gross GDP, but per capita income remains among the lowest in the world. A reporter for The Guardian went so far as to call modern elections in Ethiopia “just an exercise in controlled political participation.”[17] Protests against the regime have been largely suppressed, such as a 2016 protest in Oromia that resulted in a government crackdown that killed hundreds.[18] The next parliamentary elections are due to take place in 2020 when the EPRDF will look to maintain its absolute control.

Contribution of the Carter Center

Faithfully reported positive and negative trends in Ethiopia’s 2005 legislative elections.

Held both the ruling EPRDF and opposition parties accountable for postelection deterioration of political peace.

Recommended reforms for the future to facilitate truly free and fair elections.


[1] “Profile: Mengistu Haile Marian.” BBC. December 12, 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6171927.stm.

[2] “Ethiopia: Human Rights Developments.” Human Rights Watch. 2001. https://www.hrw.org/legacy/wr2k1/africa/ethiopia.html.

[3] Observing the 2005 Ethiopia National Elections: Carter Center Final Report. The Carter Center. December 1, 2009. 3.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Ibid., 12.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] Wijkman, Anders. Delegation to Observe Federal and Regional Parliamentary Elections in Ethiopia. European Parliament. June 2005. 6. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/intcoop/election_observation/missions/2004-2009/20051505_ethiopia.pdf

[9] Harbeson, John. “Ethiopia’s Extended Transition.” Journal of Democracy 16, issue 4. October, 2005. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.uky.edu/docview/195553049?accountid=11836&rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo

[10] “Thousands Arrested Across Ethiopia in Post-Election Crackdown.” The Washington Post. June 16, 2005. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/15/AR2005061502416.html.

[11] Observing the 2005 Ethiopia National Elections, 31. 

[12] Ibid., 33.

[13] Ibid., 36.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Rice, Xan. “Unrest over Extent of Ruling Party’s Landslide in Ethiopia.” The Guardian. May 26, 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/may/26/ethiopia-election-result-meles-zenawi.

[16] Fortin, Jacey. “Ethiopia’s Ruling Party is Expected to Keep Grip on Power.” May 23, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/world/africa/ethiopias-ruling-party-is-expected-to-remain-in-power.html.

[17] “Ethiopia’s Ruling Party Wins by Landslide in General Election.” June 22, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/22/ethiopias-ruling-party-win-clean-sweep-general-election.

[18] Fortin, Jacey. “Lethal Government Force Brings Ethiopian Region to Fearful Standstill.” June 16, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/17/world/africa/lethal-government-force-ethiopian-region.html.