Free & fair election

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It is election season in Ethiopia with voters scheduled to go to the polls on May 24, 2015 for the fifth national election since the current government took power. According to figures, a total of 6,000 parliamentary candidates have been fielded by 58 political parties across the country.
Over 36.8 million Ethiopians have registered to cast their votes and the result of the election is set to be announced on June 22, 2015. Capital will be following the election process through different consecutive interviews it will be carrying out with different political parties keeping you updated on the election that has seen the biggest voter participation yet.

Every five years, all Ethiopians fix their attention on the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) which oversees national elections. The NEBE is the only organization that has statutory right to announce election results and is currently wrapping up its preparation to conduct the fifth round of national election.     
Nega Dufessa, Secretary and Head of NEBE talked Capital’s Tesfaye Getnet on the board’s finale preparation for the national election which will be held in the coming Sunday. Excerpts:

Capital: Can you tell us what NEBE has  been doing so far to make the election a success?
Nega Dufessa:
We started our preparation right after the completion of the 2010 election. To have a democratic, peaceful and fair election, preparations have to start well ahead of time. NEBE has had conducted an assessment of its accomplishment during the last election in order to find out the Board’s weaknesses and strengths. 
We have also restructured the board; we’ve hired more staff and trained them locally and abroad to make them versed in election processes and operations. We have been presenting informative programs on the media on different topics such as voters’ right and civic education. We did this with the aim to help citizens and political parties to understand the importance of appropriate participation and actions and their crucial role for a successful and peaceful election. Eight of the major stakeholders have been working with us to realize this objective.
With regards to voters’ registration, we have registered 36.8 million people which is a record in the country’s history. The fact that there are a large number of registered voters is a testament to how serious Ethiopians are about the election.
Fifty eight political parties will contest in the election. A total of 1,826 candidates are running for parliament seats and 3,993 candidates are competing for regional council seats. We have around 45,000 polling stations across the country and we have already sent out all the necessary materials to the stations.
Capital: Most opposition parties are discontent with the financial subsidy they received from NEBE and they say it is very small. What do you say about that?
Nega:
Political parties get funds for elections from different legal sources. In some countries election boards do not provide financial support to parties, in other countries they do. 
In our case, NEBE does provide financial support to the contesting parties. From the total budget put aside for the election, 35 percent is apportioned to parties based on the number of seats they have in the parliament and in regional councils. Another 40 percent is distributed based on the number of candidates parties will have. Ten percent is given to women candidates, and the rest 15 percent is equally divided among all parties. 
In the last election, NEBE dished out 12 million birr for all parties. This time the fund grew to 30 million birr. Previously, 55 percent of the budget allotted for elections was divided among candidates who have seats in the parliament and regional councils.
However, that brought sharp criticism from opposition parties so we lowered it to 35 percent, even though we know that this procedure has an impact on the ruling party.
Capital: Some of the candidates that were presented by the parties were denied approval by NEBE and that prevented parties from having  many candidates.  What were the grounds for the rejection of candidates?
Nega:
NEBE has rules and regulations that put clearly the criteria parties should fulfill to have their representatives registered. To mention some of the criteria, for instance, a candidate must reside more than two years in the Woreda [this is an administrative sub-region of a city] he or she wants to contest in, and candidates must not have membership in a party other than their own.
Let me tell you one good example here. One opposition party presented some candidates that had already been presented by another party. The board rejected these candidates since they are also registered under another party.
In some cases, parties sue the board for rejecting their candidates. We accepted some candidates on court decision. In general, we have accepted the majority of candidates who met the criteria.
Capital: Some parties also lament that position statements and manifestos they made prepared for media debates were censured. Was it true? 
Nega:
We allocated free air time to all contesting parties based on the air time allotment criteria.    Before the campaign period opens, a panel was organized for political parties, media managers, NEBE, and other stakeholders. 
During that discussion, all parties were informed that the media has the right not to transmit or to ask particular lines of materials presented to be rewritten in cases when the messages are believed to be disruptive to the peace, tolerance and the sovereignty of the country. 
The media has not censured the messages. But, they have asked them to rewrite the messages that could have negative impact on the country’s stability. 
Many parties did accept that and proceeded to correcting their materials with full understanding.   Some parties used different kinds of music as a background to their messages without getting permissions from the artists. On such occasions, the broadcaster had to ask the parties whether or not they have got the artist’s accord to use that piece. As far as we know, the broadcasting media did ask for some things to be corrected but they did not censure parties’ campaign materials.  
Capital:  Foreign observers such as the European Union did not get permission to observe the election. Why?
Nega:
As it is stated in the constitution, foreign observers are invited only when the government believes that having foreign observers is important for the election.
The Election Board does not have the mandate to invite foreign observers, that task is left for the government. There will be foreign observers for this election such as the African Union team. 
The first cohort of the observers’ team has already arrived in Addis Ababa last week. More importantly, there will also be five public observers that are neutral and who are chosen by the public at each polling station.
In addition to that, different civic organizations and the Red Terror Martyrs Families and Friends Association will dispatch many observers. Each party will also assign its own observers at the stations where their candidates contest.
So we can boldly say that the absence of some foreign observers will not have any impact on the election because there are enough observers at each station. 
Capital: Some opposition parties criticize the board saying that it has an affiliation with the ruling party. What is your view on this?
Nega:
The board is independent. It has the full mandate to count the votes and to announce the results.  Some opposition parties begin crying foul when they see they have lost. 
We do not allow the ruling party to interfere in the board’s affaires because we are an independent body. We strongly believe that the work we have done so far is testimony to our neutrality.
Election is a process in which people throne or dethrone leaders through peaceful processes. People have the full right to give their vote to the party they believe in; all of us need to accept.