At his first pre-election news conference, EU mission chief Thygs Berman felt it necessary to state clearly that his observers would not interfere with Ethiopia's electoral process, and that the past is history.
200 EU observers and a handful of others will be watching as 31 million Ethiopians got to the polls 23 May and choose a new parliament for the first time since the disputed 2005 vote.
Berman, who is the chief European Union observer for Ethiopia's elections, says every effort will be made to avoid the kinds of mistakes that clouded the country's last legislative polls.
“On the one hand, an observation mission is an observation mission and you have to do your job and that is neutral and impartial and you just watch and observe,” said Berman. “And on the other hand, of course, it makes a difference what happened before. I think all sides, every party in Ethiopia and everybody understands that there have been mistakes made, and this country wants to avoid the same mistakes. So, there is something at stake here with these elections.”
For Berman and most members of his team, this is an election like many others they have witnessed in many countries. But for Ethiopians, this is a continuation of the 2005 polls, which ended in the killing of 200 opposition activists who took to the streets to protest that the election had been stolen.
The chief of the 2005 EU mission, Ana Gomez, denounced the killings and the alleged irregularities, putting her in conflict with Ethiopian authorities. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi accused her of siding with the opposition and stoking the violence.
Berman told reporters the events of 2005 had no bearing on the EU decision to send an observer team this time, and would have no effect on his team's work.
“Let me say one thing about 2005 though I was not there, and do not know details of what happened at that time. Colleague Ana Gomez is a highly-regarded and good colleague. But that's not the issue here. What's the issue is we will conduct an independent, fair and neutral observer mission. We did not have any talk with the government on an assessment of what happened in 2005.”
Berman admits his team is starting late. The campaign is well underway, with opposition parties charging the vote has already been rigged.
Merera Gudina, a leader of the opposition coalition Medrek, says ruling party loyalists will be in charge of vote-counting in virtually every polling station, or kebele, across the country. “EPRDF is both a referee and a player at the same time," Merera said. "There are more than 200,000 from the head office to the local kebeles. People who are going to execute, who are counting the vote of the people. They have five people in each kebele.”
Hailemariam Dessalegn, spokesman for the ruling EPRDF, or Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, calls the charge a typical opposition tactic. He says weak parties are making excuses for what is likely to be a drubbing on election day.
“No, we haven't done that,” said Hailemariam. “How could you know they are EPRDF supporters? They usually say that.”
European mission chief Berman said the impartiality of poll workers would be one of the things his observers will be looking at closely.
“It is one of the aspects of observing is the observation of the national election board,” Berman said. “Of course,... We will assess this in the course of our observation mission and in the preliminary statement and in the final report we will answer your question thoroughly.”
The 200strong European mission will have a budget of about $10 million, and plans to stay not only for the 23 May, but for the counting and the announcement of results nearly a month later.
A smaller African Union mission will also be deployed, but none of the four major U.S. Observer groups will be coming. One, the Carter Center was invited. But it declined the invitation.