Ethiopia has been undergoing extraordinary changes during the past few months and the world has taken notice of these significant developments in a positive way. The changes have implications not only for the East African country but also for the entire sub-region and also the continent at large. In an increasingly globalised world it is evident that events in one part of the world affect others in neighbouring countries but also beyond, especially with a country such as Ethiopia, whose geopolitical position is critical in the volatile Middle East and Horn of Africa region.
For the current generation the key concept is democracy. It is not enough to pay lip service to it.
The country is in desperate need of new blood and it appears that it is now on the right track; even longtime foes of the system admit this. Among the key methods the former government used to legitimise and perpetuate its authority and rule were the elections that it periodically and regularly held. But critics argued that none of the elections were free and fair. They represented a façade or formality for legitimacy.
Naturally, elections without real choice and election in an atmosphere of inequality and unfairness can only be judged as a waste. Neutral observers have concluded that neither the past five elections held during the tenure of power of this government nor those elections carried out during military rule fulfilled international standards. There were no credible alternatives. Hence, it can fairly be concluded that they were not democratic nor did they help the causes of democracy.
The prerequisites of democracy, such as a playing field governed by the same rules for all and equal campaigning opportunities, were not present. This included access to usage of halls, the media etc, things which in the past were reserved only for the incumbent.
Similarly, the selection of candidates was determined by the government and this was not accepted by opposition parties. There were issues of resources as well as the fact that the ruling party was often accused of using public or state funds to finance its re-election campaign.
Highly qualified opposition or candidates perceived as such were often not allowed to compete as restrictive conditions were imposed. Above all, the neutrality and competence of the Electoral Board was in question. This cast doubts on the credibility of the entire process. This time around, however, it appears that there really is a new chapter in the making. The Board is being recreated and there is a trustworthy chief in the person of Birtukan Mideksa, a respected judge and former political leader with concrete experience in the process.
The prime minister, who has until now proved to keep his word, has shown tangible signs of allowing free elections with the reforming of the system, with new appointments of qualified personnel. The fact that all political parties are legal and can take part in the process has made the reforms palatable to all.
One crucial issue could be the timing of the scheduled elections. Some say, including the government, that it should go ahead as scheduled. Others say there are a lot of issues to be settled before embarking on such historic elections. There are only one and a half years left.
Some argue that the new transition is not yet well-established in the country and there is a need to assure stability first. There are some individuals remaining from the previous establishment who consider the changes as a threat to their very existence and they appear to react by inciting conflict.
As prosecutions continue and important individuals are accused of violations of human rights and involvement in corruption, the atmosphere is tense. That an atmosphere of intensity might not be ideal when embarking on an electoral campaign is the argument of many academics. Others think that the legitimacy of the government may be placed under threat if it overstays. The constitution should be respected, they argue.
Many feel that the sudden commencement of the democratic process and restoration of freedom could bring about cases of abuses of freedom, as has already happened. Hence, there is the risk of aborting the crucial elections if not enough care is taken.
Currently, the government is holding consultations with the various opposition parties and these will hopefully result in a consensus on the schedule and approach to holding the elections.
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