Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Eritrean Referendum: Peasant Voices, a 1996 article by Kjetil Tronvoll

The Eritrean Referendum: Peasant Voices, a 1996 article by Kjetil Tronvoll

Any sun that rises to the east,
is our sun.
Any king that sits on our throne,
is our king

A Tigrinya proverb quoted in the article

In terms of both the yes percentage (99.8) and the turnout of registered voters (95.8 percent), the referendum held in Eritrea in the spring of 1993 is probably the most affirmative in the history of democracy. The United Nations Mission to Observe and Verify the Referendum in Eritrea (UNOVER), and other observer teams who monitored the operation of the referendum, guaranteed that it was fair, free and impartial. This says nothing, however, about the substance of democracy, about how the referendum was perceived and understood by the participants themselves. Based on fieldwork conducted between 1991 and 1993 in a small village in Segeneiti subprovince in the highland province of Akele-Guzai, the author attempts an 'experience-near' interpretation of the referendum process, describing the peasants' 'backstage' opinion. Of central interest are questions about how people without previous formal democratic traditions relate to a democratic institution such as a referendum, how they interpret the information campaign launched by the central authorities, the Provisional Government of Eritrea, formed by the Eritrean Peoples' Liberation Front (EPLF), and the Referendum Commission, and how they view the technicalities (such as registration and identification) involved in the actual balloting itself. The analysis reveals a discrepancy between the 'intentions' of democracy and the peasants' actual understanding of the options in the referendum and the voting process itself.

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