- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005

On May 15, Ethiopian democracy shone as more than 90 percent of eligible voters went to the polls and freely cast their votes, regardless of party. As Election Day peacefully ended, international monitors unanimously hailed elections unprecedented in freedom and level of participation. Even as it became clear there would be huge gains by opposition groups, some refused to accept the results where they did not prevail.

Our pride in the elections was tempered when illegal protests in the capital became violent and cost the lives of some fellow citizens. Calm now prevails, but those tragic events are a source of deep regret to every Ethiopian.

The May 15 elections were historic, but imperfect, so the independent National Elections Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) set up a transparent process, endorsed by the major opposition parties, to examine alleged irregularities and complaints filed. On the basis of the recommendations of the Complaint Investigation Panels, the NEBE ordered rerun elections in 31 of the most closely contested constituencies. The initial report by the European Union’s Election Observation Mission (EU-EOM) states clearly they were carried out “according to the electoral law” and “took place in a peaceful and orderly manner.” It found 88 percent of reruns’ process “good” or “very good.”

The main opposition coalitions, CUD and UEDF, reaped the benefits of their unfettered campaign. Opposition-controlled seats soared from 12 to 174, a more than 1,300 percent gain.

Those figures suggest opposition voters freely exercised their franchise and belie any systematic vote suppression.

The incumbent governing party now will control 327 of the Parliament’s 547 seats to the main opposition coalition’s 174 seats, with some 46 seats held by small parties. This distribution of seats is comparable to that in European parliaments and other established democratic legislatures.

Those who claim the governing coalition “stole” an election in which it lost nearly 200 seats deserve credit only for imagination, nothing else.

One can assume the governing coalition can take no joy in losing so many parliamentary seats, but the government is proud of the process by which those seats changed hands.

Our embrace of democracy is both principled and practical. It will reap practical benefits for Ethiopia: stronger relations with other democratic states, leadership in Africa and greater trade and development and esteem in the world community worthy of our storied past. For example, we know our commitment to democracy relates directly to last month’s Financial Times’ Foreign Direct Investment magazine finding that Ethiopia is No. 1 in Africa for foreign direct investment cost-effectiveness.

On May 15, the voters made manifest Ethiopia’s burgeoning political modernization. The Carter Center characterized the election as a “significant accomplishment [that] has the potential to lead to further democratization and to consolidate multiparty competition.” The U.S. State Department stated that “[t]hese elections stand out as a milestone in creating a new, more competitive, multiparty political system in one of Africa’s largest and most important countries.”

With these elections, Ethiopians have seized a future that will be shaped by a contest of ideas and not arms. That contest should now continue on the floor of the Parliament where it can shape a legitimate program to serve the interest of my country and its people. Former President Carter said in an interview last week that his “hope is opposition party members would take their seats in parliament and ensure that voters’ interests are represented.” The African Union correctly urges “all political parties to work together in the national interest and if need be, pursue any outstanding issues through due processes of the law and agreed mechanisms including dialogue.”

Even the EU-EOM, more critical than other foreign observers, noted the “decision by the government of Ethiopia and [the governing party] to launch this electoral process with international observation and unprecedented openness was a courageous and bold move.”

The mutual commitment to respect and rule of law necessary to sustain Ethiopian democracy are within our reach. Last week, we watched with real joy as the ruling party and the two major opposition parties agreed to hold a dialogue over issues of continuing disagreement. On Oct. 5, the three political parties came up with a Joint Statement emphasizing their discussions are progressing constructively. Gestures of this kind, one upon another, will further weave together the strong fabric of government based on the rule of law.

In its three millennia, Ethiopia has known scarcely more than a decade without monarchy, dictatorship or foreign domination. Yet we who threw off the Derg’s oppression have turned to the ballot box. We whose grandparents remember the Italian occupiers have built a functioning republic. We who spent most of the 20th century bowing to a king have freely elected a 21st century parliament of the people.

Our friends in the international community should point out fairly our democracy’s imperfections, but they fail Ethiopia when they seize upon them to tell us we are not who our very name declares us to be: the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, a true and functioning democracy.

KASSAHUN AYELE

Ethiopian ambassador to the United States.

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