By Jason McLure
March 30 (Bloomberg) — The European Union will send a team of observers to monitor Ethiopia’s May 23 national elections, amid complaints by opposition parties that the vote won’t be free and fair, a European lawmaker said.
Ana Maria Gomes, a Portuguese member of the European Parliament who led the EU’s monitoring mission to Ethiopia during elections in 2005, said Andris Piebalgs, the European Commissioner for Development, announced the decision to African and European parliamentarians meeting in Tenerife yesterday.
Gomes warned that the EU mission risked becoming a “farce” when Birtukan Mideksa, one of the country’s main opposition leaders, is in jail under a life sentence.
“There are no conditions for genuine democratic elections,” in Ethiopia, Gomes said in a phone interview from Tenerife. “I have many fears that this can be instrumentalized to legitimize the ruling party staying in power.”
Security forces loyal to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi killed 193 people in the aftermath of the disputed 2005 election, while thousands more were jailed, including Birtukan and other opposition leaders. Birtukan was released under a 2007 pardon agreement, before being jailed again in 2008 after saying she signed the pardon as part of a political deal.
Rene Milas, a spokesman for the European Union’s embassy in Ethiopia, said by telephone he was unaware that the decision to send a mission had been publicly announced. Shimeles Kemal, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s communications office, and Wahde Belay a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, didn’t answer their mobile phones when Bloomberg called them seeking comment.
Last week, opposition leaders and Birtukan’s 74-year-old mother, Almaz Gebregzhiabere, warned that her daughter’s health had deteriorated in prison. Birtukan was kept in solitary confinement for five months of her sentence and prison officials have allowed only her mother and her 5-year-old daughter, Halley, to visit her, said Gizachew Shiferaw, acting chairman of Birtukan’s Unity for Democracy and Justice party.
Meles told reporters on March 18 that Birtukan was in good health and that she may have “gained weight” while in prison due to a lack of exercise. He said that foreign journalists and diplomats would be banned from visiting her because she should not be accorded special treatment.
Earlier this year, the Atlanta-based Carter Center said it wouldn’t send an electoral mission to Ethiopia because it had not been allowed to observe voter and candidate registration process, according to the Addis Ababa-based Reporter newspaper.
Last week, Hailu Shawel, leader of the All Ethiopian Unity Party, said a code of conduct agreed with Meles’s ruling party brokered by British and other Western diplomats had failed to improve the country’s electoral climate.
The EU’s 2005 electoral report concluded that the poll fell short of “international principles for genuine democratic elections,” a finding formally rejected by the Ethiopian government.