Cablegate: Elections Herald 3: Southern Ethiopia Highlights

DE RUEHDS #0596/01 0640645
P 040645Z MAR 08





E.O. 12958: N/A


ADDIS ABAB 00000596 001.2 OF 004

1. (SBU) SUMMARY. From January 28 to February 1, Poloff and
senior political FSN visited several areas in the Southern
Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) and the
southern portion of the Oromiya region, to meet with
opposition leaders, government administrators and NGOs in
order to evaluate preparations for the April 13 and 20
elections that will be largely viewed as a litmus test for
progress in Ethiopian democracy following the post-2005
election conflict. Emboffs found that formerly
heavily-challenged districts in SNNPR will likely see very
little competition. Opposition party leaders in both regions
were highly pessimistic about their chances, saying that the
ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front
(EPRDF) was interfering in both voter and candidate
registration, making it nearly impossible for them to field
candidates. They did not anticipate being able to compete in
the majority of contests. Alleged techniques used by the
EPRDF ranged from "bribing" voters to register as EPRDF party
members to threats on the life of registered opposition
candidates, and generally were much for severe in Oromiya
than SNNPR. While Post has no concrete evidence of such
harassment, reports are persistent in many areas of Ethiopia.
SNNPR and southern Oromiya, both heavily represented in the
federal parliament by opposition parties, will undoubtedly
remain governed by the EPRDF following what will be a mostly
pro-forma local election process. END SUMMARY

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2. (SBU) Meetings with government officials, opposition
leaders and NGOs in SNNPR revealed severe complications and a
poor competitive environment in the run-up to the April local
elections. The zones (districts) visited-)Hadiya and
Kembatta Tembaro, as well as the regional capital of
Awassa--are areas that have had a significant opposition
presence for several years and, following the 2005 federal
elections, are majority (80 percent) represented in the
federal parliament by the opposition United Ethiopian
Democratic Forces (UEDF) party. However, the ruling EPRDF
maintains control over all the thousands of zonal, woreda
(county) and kebele (community) governmental council seats up
for election in April.

3. (SBU) With the strong showing by the opposition in 2005,
it would be expected that the areas visited would be hotly
contested in the local elections. However, opposition
leaders report that since the 2005 national elections, and
particularly in recent months, the EPRDF has made a strong
push to lure voters through a combination of traditional
political campaigning and intimidation of opposition voters
and potential candidates. In fact, during the visit
opposition leaders expressed their longing for the political
openness that prevailed before the 2005 elections, likening
the current environment to the (largely undemocratic) 2000
elections. Typical complaints from the opposition included:

- Most, if not all, local National Election Board (NEB)
employees are EPRDF nominees;
- Continued restrictions on opposition gatherings, dating
back to the post-2005 clamp down;
- Extended closure of several party offices (though the
majority of offices were open at the time of the visit);
- EPRDF cadre intimidation of farmers, threatening to
withhold fertilizer, Productive Safety Net and Protecting
Basic Services support if they do not register to vote and
pledge support for the EPRDF;
- EPRDF cadres threatening to fire civil servants, including
teachers, if they choose to run as opposition candidates;
- NEB local officials restricting known opposition
supporters from registering to vote;
- EPRDF cadres gathering voters and "bribing" them to
simultaneously register to vote and as EPRDF members; and
- Threats of violence from local EPRDF cadres against
potential opposition candidates.

Opposition leaders in each of the areas visited reported
that, due to the above interference in the democratic process

ADDIS ABAB 00000596 002.2 OF 004

on the part of the EPRDF, they have been unable to field
candidates for most seats in their areas, despite their
perceived strong support from voters. Most said that they
would be able to put forth candidates for some zonal and
woreda seats, while foregoing kebele elections altogether.
They pointed out that, absent the current levels of
harassment, they would be able to field more candidates,
particularly given the support they have in the region, but
it is unclear whether they would have the capacity to field
candidates for every open position.

4. (SBU) Zonal and regional officials (all EPRDF)
contradicted all the opposition's criticisms, saying that the
voters will turn out in April to vote for EPRDF candidates
not because of alleged intimidation, but rather as a result
of the strong push they have made to appeal to voters
following the 2005 elections. Almost unanimously, EPRDF
officials admitted that their party has made "mistakes" and
had been "arrogant" before the 2005 elections, leading to the
strong showing by the opposition, but that since that time
they have corrected their course. They denied all reports by
the opposition of harassment of either voters or potential
candidates. Improvement in standards of living, stemming
from improved roads, better education and more jobs are
certain to lead the EPRDF to victory in the April elections,
they said, not the harassment alleged by the opposition.
Moreover, zonal and regional administrators report that
following outreach by the EPRDF, the region's politically
savvy voters had "come back to their senses," changing
alliances to the EPRDF. They reported that the EPRDF has
been able to field candidates for all zonal, woreda and
kebele seats up for election.

5. (SBU) NEB officials similarly denied opposition charges,
saying that NEB employees are unaffiliated with any political
party. They reported that voter registration has been
successful thus far, with over 90 percent of eligible voters
registered, and no reports of interference or intimidation in
the registration process. On the contrary, regional
directors from NGOs, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council
(EHRCO) and Action Professionals for the People (APAP), both
involved in voter education and election observation in 2005,
reported numerous problems leading up to the April elections.
They supported many of the opposition claims of voter and
candidate intimidation, opining that, come election day, many
voters will cast ballots not because they want to, but
because they are forced to. Both organizations lamented the
lack of open competition, saying that most voters have "given
up on democracy" following the post-2005 GoE crackdown and
subsequent lack of political openness. EHRCO and APAP
officials reported that they would like to continue their
role in voter education and election observation, but
question whether they will be granted the freedom to do so
and how much voter interest there will be in the April
elections. (NOTE: While NGOs may have the capacity and desire
to conduct both voter education and election observation, the
new Electoral Law passed in June 2007 permits organizations
to conduct either one or the other, but not both, of these
functions. END NOTE.)

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6. (SBU) In contrast with SNNPR, neighboring southern Oromiya
has a much more limited record of opposition participation,
freedom and success in recent elections. Though many
districts were won by the opposition Oromo Peoples Congress
(OPC) and Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) in the
2005 federal elections, several election winners have since
quit or left the country due to severe harassment.

7. (SBU) The severity of reports of intimidation and
persecution from opposition leaders in southern Oromiya was
much more dramatic than those in SNNPR. Though separated by
only a few miles, the nature of the alleged harassment by
government cadres was dramatically more brutal. In addition
to reports of bribing of, and threats to, voters, both major
opposition parties reported violent intimidation of possible
candidates, leading them to keep candidates lists secret
until the last possible day to register, providing them

ADDIS ABAB 00000596 003.2 OF 004

limited immunity to arrest. Such reports include:

- Arrests by local police of party organizers and potential
candidates without charges or opportunity for bail;
- Threats on the life of registered candidates by GoE
security forces;
- Continued closure of opposition party offices;
- Outright refusal of NEB officials to register opposition
supporters; and
- Intimidation by EPRDF cadres of friends and family of
known opposition organizers or registered candidates.

In meetings with Poloff and senior FSN, nearly all Oromo
opposition leaders were visibly nervous to be seen with
foreigners. During one meeting, individuals who appeared to
be plain clothes security were seen taking pictures of the
meeting from a distance. At least one party office in which
a meeting took place has since been closed down by local GoE

8. (SBU) Similar to SNNPR government officials, however,
officials in southern Oromiya outright denied claims by the
opposition of intimidation or of illegal influence over the
voter registration process. They claim to have reached out to
opposition parties in an attempt to ensure that they
participate in the elections, but report that disorganization
and lack of support may very well lead to an opposition
withdrawal from the elections. They report that former
supporters of opposition parties are unsatisfied with the
accomplishments of their elected officials, leading to a
large-scale return of voters to the EPRDF.

9. (SBU) The Embassy team was unable to visit NEB offices in
Oromiya, as had been scheduled. The NEB visits *- the first
by any diplomatic mission during this election season -- had
been scheduled through the national office of the NEB.
However, at the same time the team was visiting southern
Oromiya, a team from the British Embassy was inquiring with
the national NEB office about visiting local offices in
western Oromiya. NEB leaders apparently became uneasy with
the idea of numerous diplomatic missions visiting NEB offices
throughout the country and canceled the team's scheduled
meetings, saying that in the future, all diplomatic mission
must formally request in writing to visit offices, submitting
letters to the Foreign Ministry, which will then pass the
request on to the NEB.


10. (SBU) Following the 2005 elections and subsequent unrest,
domestic politics have remained tense, with little space
allowed for opposition parties. The local elections,
originally planned for 2006 but repeatedly delayed, have been
informally billed as the next test in Ethiopia's march
towards multi-party democracy. However, in what would
otherwise be expected as a hotly contested and widely debated
election season, it now appears that most of the thousands of
open seats in zonal, woreda (country) and kebele (community),
and city councils will be uncontested, remaining with the
ruling EPRDF. Opposition party leaders and NGOs allege that,
following losses in the 2005 federal elections, the EPRDF
embarked on a heavy-handed campaign to ensure that the same
would not happen in the local elections. Widespread reports
of voter intimidation and severe harassment of potential
opposition candidates, together with a biased NEB and media,
ensure that few local-level government seats will change
hands. NGOs involved with voter education and election
monitoring in 2005 believe that a repeat of the violence seen
after the last election is unlikely however, due to the fact
that voter apathy is rampant. While government officials are
confident about their prospects in the elections, believing
that they will be reelected, opposition parties and NGOs
report feeling that long-gone are the days of political
openness that prevailed prior to the 2005 elections and that
the country has returned to the restricted political
environment of 1995 and 2000.

11. (SBU) Though the alleged harassment and intimidation by
EPRDF cadres has apparently restricted the opposition's

ADDIS ABAB 00000596 004.2 OF 004

ability to field large numbers of candidates, it is unclear
whether even in the absence of such limitations they would
have the capacity to compete for all open positions. The
fact that the opposition does not operate as one cohesive
group has made it easier for the well-organized EPRDF to
dominate the pre-election preparation period. It is clear
that the donor community needs to work closely with the GoE
to open political space. Otherwise, the more important 2010
national elections could turn more violent than post-2005
election period, due to voter frustration and opposition to
the ruling EPRDF. END COMMENT.

© Scoop Media

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