Genet Mersha, 25 February 2010 –A few days ago, I watched on video the 12 February first debate between the political parties contending for power in Ethiopia, courtesy of ERTA, organised as part of preparations for the fourth general election that would take place on May 23rd.
The selected six participating parties in order of their presentations, as determined by ballots, were EPRDF, CUD, EDP, Ye Ethiopian Ra’ey Party (Ethiopian Vision), the Ethiopian Justice and Democratic Forces Front and Medrek.The topic of the debate “Democracy and Multiparty Election in Ethiopia” provided an officially-sanctioned face-to-face attack between the parties, with little time left for elucidating their positions on issues. The interesting thing is that there were only two sides to the debate amongst six debaters, with hardly anyone in-between. Thus: on one side is the ruling party and on the other five opposition parties, four of which are signatories with the ruling party on the code of conduct, which leaves out Medrek.
Not unexpectedly, therefore, the debate moved to becoming a moment of declaration for the parties to register where each of them stands relative to the ruling party on the question of democracy and the state of multiparty politics in Ethiopia,. With the same vehemence, each of them clobbered EPRDF’s professed commitment to democracy that they said has been short in practice by any measure. Therefore, the need to trounce the poor records of the governing party facilitated greater unity, albeit momentary, amongst the opposition parties to an extent unseen before on issues, which they did this time around effortlessly.
Why is that? To start with, the topic itself has disadvantaged the ruling party with both the burden that unpopular incumbency imposes and its persistent violations of the basic human rights and civil rights of citizens and the phoney equality of nationalities in the country working against it, to which the parties repeatedly referred. On first hand basis, most of the parties reiterated complaints about mistreatment in the hands of EPRDF cadres and the police especially in the regions, the continuing imprisonments of their staff and closure of their offices. If anything, this debate clearly showed the opposition are not convinced or confident that the forthcoming election would be free, fair and transparent.
In contrast, the ruling party representatives appeared as if they were seated above the cloud with clear intention either to lecture the others or pass judgement against them. They were heard making implicit and a smug precondition that, to be recognised as genuine opposition political parties, in the first place they have to learn to accept and appreciate the victories the ruling party has so far scored. During the explanations phase of the debate, stirred by this smug posturing, Lidetu Ayalew of EDP fired one of his several blistering attacks against the ruling party stating that many in the opposition are educated and hold one or two degrees, which ever since rendered them, at least, softer on him.
In Ethiopia, politics is not for the faint-hearted. As a practice, it is about personalities and pontificating, rather than issues, subtleties and narrowing of differences. For instance, would you forget in recent experience that EDP and Medrek were at each other’s throat, as has been the ruling party against Medrek, after signing of the agreement on the code of conduct? Although EDP and Medrek’s paths have forked 180 degrees apart on that, this time they were momentarily joined when they found themselves on one side. Ever since last November’s muddling through by the EPRDF into uncharted territory via the bait of an agreement, many have written off the opposition camp as hopelessly down under the rift. Nevertheless, today both the signatories and the rejectionists see eye to eye and are crying loud foul together against the regime.
Viewed closely, it is the narrative of a backward society, where an autocratic state enjoys its role in making laws and regulations for all others but not itself. On the other hand, there has not been adequate capacity within the opposition to tame a wild and violent state. That gap has been effectively exploited by the state to the detriments of democracy and the rights of citizens, who are compelled to keep their eyes on their squabbles, instead of their long-term objectives.
For instance, what happened between EDP and Medrek is not fostered by the code of conduct alone. It is evidence of how much our society has been polarised by events and processes of the 2005 election, for the large part of which the state is responsible. This time around, all opposition parties have found themselves on the same side, reinforcing their newly-found unanimity by attacking the governing party’s determination to disadvantage them at any cost. In return, the governing party is seen choosing to play on both sides of that. It gets irked when others pick the tragedy of that election. However, it is the one that loves to go back to the past compare itself with the country’s difficult past, perhaps a sign that it also is as much traumatised as a violator.
To my mind, the debate has hardly portrayed either the ruling party or the opposition better than the other. The opposition could not show the mechanics of what would make them better alternatives; say in ensuring respect for democratic rights or fundamental human rights or how they would put democracy back on track. As far as the ruling party is concerned, it made a fool or itself trying to earn credit on the back of constitutional guarantees of democratic rights of nations and nationalities and citizens, even whose existence as laws its actions have seemed to regret or contradict through these past nearly two decades.
Therefore, the debate of 12 February would hardly be remembered for bringing fresh ideas and experience to the election. Nor has it elicited optimism from all sides in the run up to election that it would be smooth, fair and transparent. In such circumstances, like any event or place in human history, even those that otherwise have never enjoyed their present or never knew the taste of honour, often find themselves being rewarded with nostalgia. This is true of Ethiopians today; they have become nostalgic of the fervour of the 2005 election; they have begun to recall how optimistic they were, how much they enjoyed breathing freedom and democracy, as if it were already there then, alive and potent.
TPLF/EPRDF complains about lack of partner in opposition parties
Representatives of the ruling party came to the debate with two strategies. First, it was seen that devoting luxuriously sufficient time to rub on the ground the opposition’s nose as untested, lacking in sincerity and clarity of objectives, just to destroy their image and credibility. They portrayed them as mere squabble and undemocratic on account of which they are incapable of assuming responsibility to lead a huge and complex country as Ethiopia is.
Secondly, its representatives focussed on existence of constitutional guarantees in Ethiopia and prided themselves on the equality of nationalities and women. From their discussion one could glean how lightly they tread on rights and freedoms of citizens, say to assemble and organise freely, freedom of speech, press freedom, which they defined simply by the multiplicity of newspapers and magazines.
Even when it comes to the equality of women, the record is not blameless. A new research sponsored by a Norwegian research institute, its author Alemayehu Fentaw says, “In the executive branch of the government… [line ministries], women constitute 13%. In the Civil Service, women occupied only 24.3% of the higher positions (Directors, Division Heads, Ambassadors, etc). In the judiciary, among judges of the Supreme, High and First Instance Courts of the Federal and Regional State governments, women represent 13% whilst they used to account for 25.5% in 2003.
In the Cabinet, at the top of the echelon, there was only one woman heading a line ministry [Education]”, which he sees as retreat by the regime from its own target (Towards Inclusive Security in Ethiopia, sponsored by Oslo-based think tank, courtesy of aigaforum). Incidentally, think of how many women lawyers have either fled the country or languish in prison. This, the opposition failed to highlight as part of the problems of democracy in the country.
While the two representatives of the ruling party repeatedly decried the opposition’s constant criticisms of the achievements of the governing party, they characterised the opposition single-mindedly preoccupied with removing the EPRDF from power. Instead, they urged the opposition first to see how they can live with those victories it has achieved and in the post election era to enrich them and themselves. It was in that connection, they lamented the ruling party’s lack of partners in the opposition to build democracy in Ethiopia.
By the sound of it, this lack of partner idea is a political lingo borrowed from Israel’s constant refrain of its “lack of partner for peace” in the Middle East. It is a political statement, basically aimed at discrediting the Palestinian side and showing their incompetence to run a state of their own. In turn, Israel meant to put the onus on the Palestinians for the continuing Middle East peace problems. Familiarity in this case breeds not only contempt; but also the guilt of misappropriation of a concept that scarcely is applicable to our situation. After all, in the African context, the problems of democracy are associated with authoritarianism of the state and its fondness of control and violence. How the onus of democracy’s problems should be passed to the opposition is rather cockeyed.
Opposition parties reject Ethiopia being democratic or multiparty state
On the topic of the debate, the five parties were categorical in saying that Ethiopia is neither democratic, nor a multiparty state. Very articulate in the debate and the sharpest needle on EPRDF side was Ato Lidetu Ayalew of EDP, who described the democracy pretence with a metaphor, by likening the difference to what a child born 18 years ago would have done with his life.
He said a child born when TPLF came to power 18 years ago would by now complete high school and gets ready to go to college. In contrast, in 18 years Ethiopia has been ruled by one party and a single prime minister. He amplified the oddity of this situation by pointing out in a country where opposition parties have 165 seats in parliament winning numerous woredas (districts), they still have never had a woreda or a region to administer; not a single seat in cabinet; nor even a single Kebele to run, which he said is proof Ethiopia is a single party state.
While welcoming the benefits of the endeavours of ‘revolutionary democracy’s developmental state’ to national development, he rebuked its singular focus on ‘mixing cement and sand’ to build bridges, as if that would justify the absence of democracy and its utter disregard of human development in Ethiopia, to which other opposition parties also added similar sentiments.
Format and organisation of the debate leave much to be desired
By the standards of the debate for the 2005 election, the format and organisation this time was rigid, cold and lonely, with no spectators from the public and civil societies allowed to be present. The debate was moderated by two journalists from the government media, an institution not known for either its objectivity or neutrality. Likewise, the time allocated for the opposition was unfairly unequal and inadequate. Each opposition party was given a total of 22.5 minutes in three interventions—to introduce, discuss and summarise its position, compared to 67.5 minutes for the EPRDF. In other words, each opposition party had 12.5 percent of the time, while the EPRDF had 37.5 percent.
Ato Lidetu Ayalew was the only one who made a wistful observation about that. He compared the format of the debate and the time allotted now to the 2005 election, in which he had participated, and regretted the lack of equal opportunities for all parties this time. The unfairness of the current arrangement, Ato Lidetu likened to the regression of Ethiopian democracy, whose motion, if any, he said is often backwards, or else stationary. To that he added, the absence of NGOs especially, the sense of neutrality of which they brought in the past as moderators, and the enthusiasm of spectators, which he seemed to have so much missed.
EPRDF says opposition parties not ready for power—does this signal anything?
There are a couple of things to bear in mind, as signs of trouble going forward. On one hand, the ruling party is strongly convinced that it must win in an electoral process it has designed, controlled and managed this far. After all, for it this is the last march to a sense of satisfaction, or a recompense of sorts, for a party that was humiliated in 2005. The psychological need is even greater now in a situation that it has transformed in its favour to heal and cheer up its dispirited support. Therefore, the ruling party is in a state of mind that is famished by the lack of appreciation or hearty support and greatness. For instance, in the April 2008 local election, it declared its victory with 99 percent of the votes, by jailing opposition candidates.
On the other hand, the ruling party despises the opposition. It would not accept another loss of public confidence in another free and fair election. Clearly, this shows that it is determined that there is only one way—winning at any cost. Dr. Merera Gudina of Medrek noted in the debate that his party has come across a paper circulated by the ruling party that says EPRDF is the only party that should win—an effort to instil the battle cry in its supporters! If political parties withdraw from the election alleging that the playing field is not level, perhaps it is not only AEUP, but also Medrek and others. During the debate, Dr. Merera Gudina has indicated that his party was taking part, not believing that the election would be free and fair, but to use the forum to communicate with the Ethiopian people.
Moreover, EPRDF’s preparation to win this election began five years ago. To that end, it has, among others, mobilised the youth throughout the country with a coded message “to be responsible for ensuring that the election would pass peacefully.” According to news report appearing on ethioforum.org, in a video-conference to a gathering of 75,000 youth in early November in Nazareth town, the prime minister had instructed them to operate as intelligence officers to follow up and expose opposition forces as they are rent-seekers, in simpler terms, it means exploiters or profiteers. This is an enormous responsibility to impose on teenagers and other youngsters, as fresh party recruits to be either induced to unpredictable actions or overzealousness.
Is AEUP turning its back on its new amity with the ruling party?
Another visible sign of trouble brewing ahead of is that of not all political parties participating in the election due to unfavourable situation entangling the electoral processes. For example, there are news reports that the absence of Eng. Hailu Shawl from amongst party leaders and that of representatives of his All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) in the debate is already attributed to frustrations in the processes.
In a matter of fact language and without explaining the reasons, the moderators announced replacement of AEUP by the Ethiopian Ra’ey Party. So far, there has not been official indication by the party whether this is sign of enough is enough of the arm twisting by the ruling party or discouragement by the continued unevenness of the playing field against what the code of conduct has promised.
If what the volatile 73-year old engineer-turned-politician AEUP leader told Peter Heinelin of VOA on February 18 is any indication, the likely course for his party would be its eventual withdrawal from the election. Already, through Mr. Heinelin Engineer Hailu Shawl has fired the first warning shot, “I do not want to complain after the election…If there is no effective observation, there is no election. We will be the first ones to say, sorry, we don’t trust the process.” Mr. Heinelin’s reading of the engineer’s thinking is that his party may boycott the election “unless there are some guarantees of a level playing field.”
What is astonishing is that how much between November 4 and early February things have turned 360 degrees, despite high hopes the agreement has aroused amongst the signatories. Instead, it has now become vindication of Medrek’s refusal to be a part of, despite the hounding from every corner that it should sign. If AEUP’s threat becomes real, undoubtedly it would become the first serious verdict against the behaviour of the ruling party that the nation has known all along and that international observers cannot go against this time around.
Meanwhile, this initial warning shot by the AEUP leader has turned TPLF/EPRDF into a beaver trying to salvage the situation before the case is made against the electoral processes. Surely, one of these days we may read in the news about a new split within AEUP or EDP, for which the ruling party has achieved unmatched notoriety. The fact that the electoral processes are not controlled by an independent electoral body simply means, as in the past, anything less than victory for the TPLF/EPRDF, God forbid, would end up turning the situation into a bloodbath and greater human sufferings.
The coming together of the opposition
In contrast, in the face of their helplessness and unmistakable trouncing, representatives of the ruling party resorted to attacking the opposition alleging connivance with “Eritrea a regime that is bent on destabilising Ethiopia.” The chairperson of Medrek rejected the attack. Nevertheless, the fact is not hidden from them that only the OLF has base in Eritrea and is not legally recognised in Ethiopia and was not participating in the debate. In spite of that, they referred to the legal members of the opposition as such, which is tantamount to accusing them of being traitors to their country.
Recall that at the beginning the moderators had said any attack on the dignity of persons and parties would constitute breach of the principles governing that forum, resulting in endangerment of future participation in such a debate. Nonetheless, we saw no attempt by the moderators to stop the ruling party from that forbidden behaviour.
Finally, Ato Lidetu Ayalew’s position has dual track; as a good citizen he is concerned for the country. At the same time, he was open about seeking a redress for himself in the eyes of the Ethiopian people. In that regard, what worries him most is the fact that Ethiopian politics has become a vehicle of hatred and rumor-mongering. With heat and emotion, he presented himself as honest, straightforward and a well-educated liberal. His preoccupation is the fear that ethnic based politics of the ruling party has placed the country’s future on unsafe ground, with its needless emphasis on rights of nations and nationalities that are empowered with the right of cessation.
This aspect has also been picked up by the Ethiopian Ra’ey party and the Ethiopian Justice and Democratic Forces Front. These parties fear that perhaps the danger is contained for now so long as the TPLF, as the author of ethnic policies is in power. In that regard, he added that the future existence of Ethiopian state could be in danger the day the TPLF loses power, with Tigrai or Oromiya leading the way. As a solution, he proposed constitutional changes before this comes to pass.