Come May of this year Ethiopia is preparing to carry out the fifth general election since the coming into power in 1991 of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). But controversies surrounding two main opposition parties, all too recognizable, surfaced in an unfortunate fashion and have left a trace of a familiar scenario. Once again the country’s democratization process, already at a snail’s pace, if at all, is under big question mark.
Series of incidents including police crackdown against opposition rallies have signaled the incumbent’s intent to run without a real challenge. It is all too predictable as the incumbent is notorious for overpowering opposition parties, leaving little or no room for resilient alternative voices to flourish.
A party to this is the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), the first in the history of the country and the making of the incumbent. In desperate need of institutional overhaul, NEBE is largely known as a poster child for lack of impartiality. The questionable manner by which it conducted the selection of local election observers from among the ranks of the public speaks volumes about its integrity and impartiality. Representatives of Ethiopia’s largest coalition of opposition parties, Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia (a.k.a Medrek), collectively dismissed the process as simply “nominal” and many of the selected members as pro EPRD; not without good reasons.
What’s more disturbing, however, is with just over three months ahead of voting day, what the incumbent and its sympathizers maintain is a pitiable intraparty bickering has consumed two of the major opposition parties – Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), a.k.a Andnet and All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP). And once again, the electoral board did what it is good at – recognize one faction at the expense of the other.
The unsettling déjà vu
For Ethiopians the recent decision by the electoral board is a chilling reminder of all things politics. Opposition political parties in Ethiopia have a rather ill-fated history of missing on organizational strength in the face of adversity – orchestrated or accidental – and the incumbent, assisted by the NEBE, knows how to capitalize on that. This time it is because two groups inside the UDJ and AEUP have wrangled for leadership control of the parties.
What’s incontestable for many is that this unfortunate episode within both parties has the incumbent written all over it. It may be that passing the buck is an old political habit, but what is also never lost to the general public is that Ethiopia is home to numerous opposition parties deliberately enfeebled by the dirty tricks of the incumbent, although Ethiopians are also not strangers to opposition political parties known for their lack of structural savvy. This is not the first time that intraparty bickering has eliminated potential opposition parties from the picture.
What happened inside the UDJ, a party of relatively solid stature that many took as their next hope to do away with the current monotonous parliament, is a classic example. The now defunct UDJ’s leadership, under Belay Fekadu, was voted into the office as of October 2014, following the unexpected resignation of the party’s President Gizachew Shiferaw (Eng.). Gizachew blamed his decision to resign on pressures coming both from inside and outside the party. The general public may never know the true color of this unfortunate turn of event, but from the looks of it Gizachew’s resignation has signaled the beginning of the end of UDJ as the public knew it. It caused a regrettable split within the party that created another leadership claim by Tigistu Awelu, who, unsurprisingly, became NEBE’s favorite in a rather questionable suspicious decision by the board on Jan. 29th. The NEBE blamed UDJ’s split to the party’s decision to elect a new leader without convening a general assembly, and says it violates all sorts of the party’s bylaws.
In the backdrop of this, the NEBE effectively portrayed itself as the Good Samaritan to save the troubled party from itself. (It gave two ultimatums for the two factions, who meanwhile got busy at calling each other “power mongers” and “infiltrators”, to reach at a mutual accord.) But at the end it all came down to a decision by the NEBE that effectively put the old UDJ under the leadership of Belay (including Girma Seifu, the lone parliamentarian in the sea of pro-EPRDF members of the house of peoples’ representatives) out of the 2015 election.
Who is the loser?
This incident has a threefold regress against Ethiopians’ experience with non-violent politics and the ruling party’s claim to turn the country into a multi-party democracy.
First, it deprived a good portion of the public from having a credible alternative voice and representation within the political system. Throughout the last 23 years opposition political parties in the country work hard to form their own structure, but harder to deal with the injustices, wrong doings, and political corruption by and within the incumbent. Ethiopians have witnessed most of the opposition parties succumbing to trivial issues such as differences of opinions, and the NEBE’s corruptible manner of capitalizing on these differences to permanently disable them.
Second, it has exposed the incumbent’s attempt to have a field day over unfortunate incidents that have national consequences. Embarrassingly, the incumbent used its infinite access to all the available major media outlets to belittle the leadership within these two opposition parties and pose itself as the ultimate choice the country could ever have. This has heralded in not only a loss of alternative voice for parts of the public but another raison d’être for the ruling EPRDF to unleash the “I am your only savior” narrative. In the long run it also signals the end of the beginning for Ethiopia’s quest to become a multi party democracy.
Third, the problems that consumed the UDJ and AEUP and the manners by which pro EPRDF media narrated it to the general public have undoubtedly contributed to further erode public trust in politics. In a country where politics is wrapped with unflattering public perception, political groups are expected to go the extra mile to gain the trust of a rather apathetic populace. Sensationalized tales of power lust, conspiracy and vacillations ahead of a general election indubitably wears down public confidence not just in the specific parties but the general process of the country’s unfished journey to become a multi-party democratic system. The NEBE and the government may refute that line of argument by way of maintaining the increasing numbers of registered voters and voter turnout. However a country’s journey to democratization is gauged in the process to an election, which starts long before the voting day, not the number of registered voters. After all, it is not unusual to come across people who carry their registration cards in hopes of having access to public services.
Currently, out of the 547 seatsin the national parliament there is only one member of the opposition from the UDJ. By any political standard, this poses a direct threat to a multi-party democratic system the country wants (or claims to want) to build over the course of period.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn maintained his government was “very keen to see a multi-party democracy in this country to flourish. There is no way that the government can backtrack from a democratic discourse and multi-party democracy,” he told reporters in the capital.
Rhetorically Prime Minister Hailemariam is also of the view that a “multi-party democracy is gauged in terms of the process of the election, not of the result.” But answering to a question, a few months ago, from this magazine on whether his government was working to ensure the availability of a political space for opposition parties, he deliberately misread the question and said it was undemocratic for his government to give “quotas” so opposition party members can enter the parliament. What he was unwilling to acknowledge is the biting reality that what Ethiopia failed to achieve is exactly the process he claimed to contribute to a multi-party democracy. The recent debacle within UDJ and AEUP illustrates this failure and the NEBE’s conspicuous contribution to it.
Reform the NEBE
EPRDF’s pledge to remain faithful to turn the country into a multi-party democracy ought to start from reforming the NEBE in the first place. It is a public knowledge that ever since the bloody general election in 2005 Ethiopia’s journey to become a multi-party democracy is speeding at an agonizing downward spiral. This is partly because the NEBE, under the tight control of the incumbent, has failed to reform itself to leave up to a minimum standard of impartiality and to give opposition parties equal chances to survive. But it should be clear both to the NEBE and the incumbent that by any standard an enfeebled opposition is not a sign of an incumbent’s success.
But that doesn’t exempt the leaderships both at the UDJ and AEUP (in this particular instance) from taking part of the blame for the mess they find themselves in. By succumbing to trivial differences and publically engaging in venomous name calling the leaderships at both parties have served the NEBE’s purpose to cherry-pick one at the expense of the other, and gave a pretentious reason for the incumbent to portray itself as the only party worthy of public trust.
The result is that for the fifth time, thousands of Ethiopians will be queuing at the polling stations to vote, but with their favorite representatives missing from the list. It’s time to end that murky déjà vu.