By Peter Heinlein (VOA News), Addis Ababa
Ethiopia’s ruling party and three opposition groups have agreed on a Code of Conduct for parliamentary elections scheduled for next May. Other opposition parties that boycotted the Code of Conduct talks will still be bound by the rules.
Ethiopia’s Communications Minister Bereket Simon says parliamentary elections will be held next May 23rd. The last vote in May, 2005 triggered protests that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of anti-government demonstrators and the imprisonment of many opposition leaders.
Bereket says a Code of Conduct to be signed Friday among the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, and three of the country’s 91 opposition parties should prevent a repeat of the 2005 debacle. “We see a culture of negotiation between the parties which is new to Ethiopia is taking place and one can say the multi-party democratic process is once again strengthened by a new discussion and negotiation process that took place between the parties,” he says.
A coalition of eight other prominent opposition parties boycotted the Code of Conduct talks, saying they would be meaningless without a discussion on creating what they call a ‘level playing field’ for the election. The coalition, know as the Forum alleges that the government-appointed National Electoral Board is controlled by the ruling party and cannot be neutral.
Former Ethiopian President Negaso Gidada, now an independent Member of Parliament aligned with the Forum, told VOA that codes of conduct have proven ineffective in checking the ruling party’s overwhelming control of the electoral machinery.
Mr. Negaso says he does not believe the latest agreement will level the playing field. He points out the country had two kinds of codes of conduct in 2005 and he does not see much new in this code.
Communications Minister Bereket Simon says forum candidates will be allowed to run in the election even through their groups have not signed the conduct code. But he says they will still be bound by it. “Signing a code of conduct is not a precondition for registering, but whether they sign it or not, this is going to be applicable for all. If they transgress it, it will be a transgression of the law of the land, but they don’t have to sign in order to register,” he says.
The leader of one major opposition group, Hailu Shewal of the all Ethiopian Unity Organization will sign the code of conduct despite deep reservations about whether it can bring about a fair election. He described negotiations on the code as ‘tough but amicable’, and said he is hopeful the government will agree to changes in the staff of the national electoral board to help ensure its impartiality.
Minister Bereket confirmed that European Union observers had been invited to monitor the election. But he avoided answering a question about whether U.S. observers would also be invited.
Several U.S. observers were ordered out of Ethiopia before the 2005 elections.