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News: Ethiopian parliament approves a former judge as new chairperson of electoral board

Yared Tsegaye

Addis Abeba, November 22/2018 -Ethiopia’s House of People’s Representatives (HPR) have today approved Birtukan Mideksa, former judge and opposition party leader, as the new chairperson to lead the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). This follows after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed forwarded Birtukan’s name as his only choice of nominee.

But unlike PM Abiy’s previous nominees, such as the president of the federal republic of Ethiopia, or the president of the federal Supreme Court Meaza Ashenafi, the 330 members of parliament who were in attendance at the 4th year, 7th ordinary session, did not render Birtukan their unanimous vote: four have voted no while three have abstained.

“What were the right steps taken to verify that she [Birtukan], is not currently affiliated with any political organization?” a woman Member of Parliament asked. Others have triggered the issues of fairness and credibility of Birtukan, linking her role as an opposition party leader during the 2005 elections, where Birtukan’s party, Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), was one of the major players in the elections.

Birtukan, a Harvard graduate of public administration, has in the past made no secret of her grave concerns on neutrality and credibility of the hitherto untrustworthy NEBE. She stood firm in explaining the challenging work that awaits her while speaking to the media. “Having been all through in the system and fighting for the existence of democracy, I am not [unfamiliar] with such acts that would not ensure democratization and legitimate transparency. I don’t have a life …left for such favoritism,” Birtukan said, “If I am that person, I will not forgive myself.”

Commenting on her political affiliations, Birtukan said: “It has been almost 10 years since I stopped my party affiliations; [I was] rather devoted to human rights and worked to see the lights of democracy.”

Defending his appointee, Prime Minister Abiy said his government made the necessary checks that the person appointed for such a position was not in favor of a political party; Birtukan has been a researcher at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). PM Abiy, was also asked if Birtukan carries a foreign passport, which she doesn’t according to him. He further said that:“We do not have to ignore the fact that [some Ethiopians] have been unwillingly forced to have foreign passports.”

Birtukan, 45 and a single mother, is the second woman after Samiya Zekaria, for Ethiopian ambassador to Nigeria who has only served the board for a little less than a year.

 Challenges yet to come

Overseeing the assignment of holding fair and free elections has always been the dark spot for NEBE ever since Ethiopia was declared a republic in 1995. Perhaps nothing matches the board’s spectacular failure during the post 2005 elections, which wiped off the presence of a vibrant opposition block from Ethiopia’s electoral space; and the 2015 elections, which produced a whooping 100% win to the incumbent, leaving Ethiopians and the world in utter shock.

“I knew the system, the ills and what’s to change,” Birtukan, who  became the fourth chairperson to lead NEBE, said.

There are a number of laws considered as “repressive” which are currently in the process of amendment. One among these laws is the proclamation dealing with elections, Proclamation 532/2007 of the Electoral Law, which was last amended in 2006.

A 13 member Advisory Council for Legal and Justice Affairs, which included Meaza Ashenafi, was set up to help the attorney general’s office in amending these laws, which also include the civil society, the media and the anti-terrorism laws. Part of this advisory council is tasked to work on amending the electoral law and NEBE itself.

This group of the advisory council is expected to hold public consultations with opposition political parties and concerned groups on Thursday, November 29, 2018. It is understood that the council has already started work on drafting its proposals on amending the electoral bill, the first draft of which which is almost done way before Birtukan appointment today.

Birtukan’s biggest test will be the 2020 general elections, which PM Abiy Ahmed promised time and again would be free and fair. But before that, she will have to work on the composition of the electoral board which is expected to involve the active participation of major opposition party members. AS

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