The first parliamentary election in Ethiopia

The first parliamentary election was held in 1957

The first parliamentary election was held in 1957, and according to Robert L. Hess a total of 2.6 million people voted out of 3.7 million registered voters. Robert L. Hess took the statistics from the Ethiopia, Ministry of Finance, Statistical Abstract, 1965(Addis Ababa: Commercial Printing Press), p. 35. Here are some of the pictures taken by the US Embassy during the 1957 election.

I saw interesting comments in reply to this posting by the U.S. embassy. All comments clearly showed that most Ethiopians have no idea about the history of elections in Ethiopia. Some people doubt there were actual elections back then and some some say they were fake elections. Let me shed some lights on the history of elections and parliament in Ethiopia. Yes, there were elections and they were far more transparent than the ones we have witnessed. However, the parliamentary system of imperial Ethiopia was not without problems.

The 1955 constitution
The 1957 election was the first election in Ethiopia after the enactment of the1955 constitution, which replaced the older 1930 constitution. The importance of the the 1955 constitution was the formation of the lower House of Parliament into which deputies were allowed to be elected from all corners of the country and walks of life. Fitawrari Amede in his autobiography, talks about his election campaign which included a very interesting debate at a market place. Fitawrari Amede was a clerk for one rich merchant in Dessie and was not even a Fitawrari when he won a seat in the parliament.

the lower house ህግ መምርያ ምክር ቤት
Although elections were for the most part, free and transparent, bills passed by the lower house has to be voted on by the upper house. Members of the upper house were not elected by the people, but by the Emperor. They included powerful individuals from the aristocracy. It was similar to the House of Lords . A bill passed by both houses can be vetoed by the Emperor. I don’t know how many times the Emperor used his veto power or if he used it at all. The lower house was an interesting place. It was a house of real debates. Fitawrari Amede recounts how there were no microphones that are controlled by the speaker. Anybody can speak at any time. There were times of fist fights. The members probably believed that they had power. Although government for the most part waited for the parliament to pass bills and approve government plans, there were times that the cabinet ( body of ministers) and the Emperor acted alone on trade deals and development plans due to the inefficiency of the parliament. Fitawrari Amede attributes that to lack of knowledge on the part of its parliament members. The lower house raised, and debated on so many issues. The lower house was the first, not STUDENTS to raise the question of land in 1964. The house has passed various bills that curtailed the rights of the landlord. Unfortunately, most of these bills did not make it past the upper house.

Political Parties
Political parties were not allowed in imperial Ethiopia. The main fear was the possible formation of a communist party and ethnic parties. The fear became more real when non political organization, which were allowed at the time, formed mostly along ethnic lines.

1930 Constitution
In the year of his coronation, Emperor Hailesellasie started the process of drafting the first modern constitution, which was modeled after Japan, another imperial country. He was NOT asked by the people or forced by anyone to take his country that route. The constitution allowed a parliament into which members WERE NOT elected but hand picked by himself. This, although not inclusive of the majority, allowed discussion of government matters by more people outside of the Emperor’s inside circle. Starting a parliament as far back as 1930 was commendable. One Ethiopian scholar said on the VOA that the reason the Emperor introduced the 1930 constitution was because it was a condition given to Ethiopia to enter the League of Nations. That is not true as Ethiopia had been a member of the league years before that.

My Take
The students of the time, unfortunately did not see the merits of parliamentary democracy. Instead of asking to give more power to the lower house, they espoused grass root Marxist revolution, which by nature was anti democratic. The dergue even jailed many members of parliament. Having said that, I choose to be optimistic about the upcoming elections in Ethiopia and wish well to candidates of both the ruling and opposition parties at this Sunday’s election. I know democracy is a process and hope Ethiopia is on the right track. U.S. Embassy, thank you for posting this interesting pictures.

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