Weeks after passing the decision to postpone the next general election, the Chairwoman of the election board appeared at the Ethiopian parliament to explain why the election had to be postponed. It turns out, parliament endorsed it.
By Bernabas Shiferaw
April 30, 2020
The Ethiopian parliament held a meeting today where the Chairman of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), Ms. Birtukan Mideksa, presented the decision of the Board to postpone the upcoming election beyond August due to COVID-19 outbreak and answered questions from members of the parliament.
The parliament ratified the Board’s decision with one objection and 18 abstentions and passed the matter unto the ‘legal, justice, and administrative matters committee’ to examine the decision and come up with a proposed solution.
The Board had already announced that it will not be able to hold the election in August due to the restrictions posed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leaving the final decision to the parliament to which the Board is accountable.
The parliament’s acceptance of the Board’s proposition is not surprising as many believe it is not feasible to hold an election this year even without the threat of COVID-19 due because of the political turmoil and the security issues that exist in many parts of the country.
But the decision not to hold an election by August poses another dilemma for the government. As per the constitution, the legal lifetime of the current government ends at the beginning of October. So it needs some legal framework to stay in power beyond October. However, the constitution states that elections have to be held every five years (Article 58) and does not give the government an explicit authority to extend a term beyond five years.
Four alternatives have been identified by the government to overcome this dilemma. One is to use Article 60 of the constitution which gives the prime minister a right to dissolve the parliament with the consent of the parliament, in which case an election will have to be held within 6 months of the parliament’s dissolution. This move is not so hard to implement as the party in power controls the majority of the parliament. But if it does so, it will be forced to hold an election within six months. And many agree that this is a great risk to take as the threat of COVID-19, the political turmoil and the security problems in the country are not expected to go away in such a short period of time.
The second alternative is to extend the state of emergency that has been declared weeks before. The government can, with two thirds majority in the parliament, renew the state of emergency “every four months successively.” But since a state of emergency gives the government the authority to suspend democratic rights of citizens, many fear that if the government follows this path, conflicts will become inevitable.
The third alternative is constitutional amendment, which requires two thirds majority in both houses and a majority in two thirds of the Councils of regional states. As the Prosperity party controls both the upper and lower houses and all the houses in the regional states except Tigray, this move is not impossible. However, like the previous alternative, it might lead to an even greater political turmoil and result in conflicts. This is mainly because, first, opposition parties that are calling for the establishment of a transitional government will object to it, and second, the Prime Minister has previously spoken against constitutional amendments while many political parties were asking for it claiming that this is a task that must be left to a newly elected government. With such a precedent, many will consider an amendment to extend the government’s term a transition to complete authoritarian rule.
The last alternative is asking the House of Federation (the upper house) for an interpretation on the matter. According to some sources, the party central committee has already decided in favor of this alternative. But many critics have called this move legally incorrect since the matter requires an amendment, not an interpretation. According to them, the issue is not of ambiguity or self-contradiction by the constitution. It is rather a problem of incompleteness and can be solved only through an amendment.
So far, opposition parties are reacting in three ways mainly. The Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), the party governing the regional state of TIgray, has announced that it is opposed to extending the election and is insisting that the election must be held in August, despite the challenges mentioned above. Parties like ‘National Movement of Amhara’ (NaMA) and the coalition Abronet (Togetherness), have called for a transitional government. NaMA has also proposed 15 amendments to the constitution. ‘Freedom for Equality Party’ has announced that according to a study they commissioned, amending the constitution to extend the time of the election is the best method.
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