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Election and the Political Class: Beyond Winning (or Losing) Elections in Ethiopia: Part IV

Tsegaye R. Ararssa


1. Introduction
In the last instalments, I have charted out the ‘mood’ in order for us to assess whether there is, in Ethiopia today, the required ‘democratic ambience’ within the context of which Election 2015 is taking place. I have also sought to consider the factors that indicate more despair than hope, more anxiety than anticipation. Problematizing the Ethiopian state form that frames the context in which this election happens, especially in the last piece, I have highlighted the tenuous state-society relations between the peoples of the various constituent units of the Ethiopian federation.

Continuing in that vein and furthering the attempt to make sense of Election 2015, in this piece, I seek to raise some questions about what the election means to the political actors, i.e., the political class who have direct and indirect stake in this election. In particular, I raise the question of what election means to the political parties, why they are doing it (i.e., why EPRDF conducts election, and why the opposition political parties take part in it). As the relevant Ethiopian public ‘decides’ to vote and vote in favor or against this or that party, it is important that people have a clear idea of what the election is for the parties (especially for the incumbent EPRDF) and why they should make their mind about what to do about it. This clarity helps us determine if – and the extent to which – we are complicit in the structural injustice the country wallows in and out of.

What are the questions? The following are some of them, and people have been asking them for months already: what does election mean to the political class? Why is EPRDF doing it, and why does it matter? What is the point of conducting elections, especially considering EPRDF’s resolution to reconfirm and entrench itself in the position of power? What do the opposition political parties seek to achieve through elections? As peoples, when we elect, what are we electing, really? Are we just changing leaders or parties thereof, or are we seeking a more fundamental political renewal? Does election serve as a moment of redemption in Ethiopia? Who are we the electors? Why do the things we elect matter to us?


2. Making Sense of Elections: Election and the Political Parties
These questions can be answered more concretely and more comprehensively if we think through them from the perspectives of the incumbent and of the (bigger) opposition parties [1]. In the first election debate among parties, three ideological lines were articulated. EPRDF stipulated, not for the first time, that their policy endeavours and their political actions are informed by what it called ‘Democratic Developmentalism’. From among the opposition political parties, the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) was quick to reiterate its commitment to liberal democracy. In this, it was joined by other older, if only weaker, parties such as the CUD, UDJ, AEUP and younger (and newer) parties such as the Semayawi and New Generation Party (NGP). This group of parties made a clearly liberal indictment on the incumbent insisting on the fact that moral individualism (of politics) and laissez faire entrepreneurship/industrialism (of economy) is the best form of achieving development and progress in Ethiopia—both politically and economically. The Forum for Democratic Dialog in Ethiopia (Medrek) expressed its commitment to social democracy and emphasized the need for dealing with social justice, past and present, in such a way that there is a degree of mass consensus on the way forward.


EPRDF stressed ‘development, peace, and democracy’ (even when its leaders hardly try to explicate what exactly the content is). In what looked like a premature celebration of their achievement in this regard, the EPRDF recounted how they have lifted millions out of poverty, the number one enemy they have defined as such and had long vowed to combat. The insistence on the quantified narrative of the double digit growth has already swayed in their heart but not yet in the lived experience of the public. In that first debate on ideology, EPRDF sounded more technocratic (a party of economic growth) and less populist (the party of the political). This was interesting to watch because historically, EPRDF is known to be a populist organization at least in its rhetoric. But now, it seems to be caught between its new attire of technocracy on the one hand and its fading old populism on the other. It appeared to observers a reluctant populist. It refused to debate the hot political issues such as land grabs, ethno-cultural justice, voices of the poor, etc. Increasingly, it is also becoming an enthusiastic technocrat, signalling the closure of the space for the political and marking the end of politics (or their interest thereof).


EDP advanced its line from the tradition it inherited from the old CUD and especially insisted that individual rights are primary to collective rights (if at all they are there), citizens are primary to nations or ethnic groups, and liberty rights are primary to other kinds of rights. In terms of practical policy manifestations of this commitment to liberalism, they proposed to privatize land, liberalize the economic sector (in full alignment with the principles of free market economy), and recasting the federal system in such a way that it ceases to follow purely ‘linguistic’ lines. In this, they seemed to take too much for granted. They seem to be mindless of the inequality and a range of asymmetries that we have on the ground in Ethiopia. It seems to be lost on them that given the asymmetry, speaking of a free market system in which all individuals are seen as having a formal equality as a fair and just system (that also enhances development) is either to misunderstand liberalism or to disregard the many differentiated problems people languish under in Ethiopia. Their insistence on privatization of land in a context where farmers are already deprived of access to their own small plots of land because of the incoming of local developers and foreign investors that are displacing them (even when, theoretically, land is still state-owned) seems to suggest that their commitment to liberalism is more doctrinaire than realistic. The political liberalism they uphold (expressed in the form of freedom of speech, expression, press, assembly, association, etc) may help to free a portion of the population from the oppressive state structure of the incumbent, but not all. In a country where there are still people denied of their right to human rights, thin political liberalism falls miserably short. The economic liberalism might help the rich and the well-to do, but not the large majority of the poor public who struggle to earn a means of livelihood day by day. To turn a blind eye to social justice and contemporary economic despair in a country riddled with such an injustice is either choosing to be irrelevant among the mass or to care less about their plight in our ambition to preserve our commitment to doctrinaire liberalism.

Medrek’s offer of social democracy and its rhetorical flourishes on social justice are noted, but they too were short on details of how to make this a reality in policy terms. But from the position of some of the parties in this ‘Forum’ (such as OFC, UEDF, etc), one can observe that they have reservations about the potential of individualist liberalism to do all the tricks regarding political emancipation in Ethiopia. There seemed to be a long held commitment to collective rights that found its expression in the politics of recognition and federal restructuring of the state. However, they insist that EPRDF’s commitment to collective rights and federal diversity is more a mere political rhetoric than a practical-legal reality. In this, they seem to argue for perfecting the imperfect federal dispensation. Similarly, they seem to have a reservation on the issue of land privatization. While they don’t explicitly say that they are for or against land privatization, they tend to gravitate towards allowing the public to decide on the matter in a free political environment. They condemn EPRDF’s use of the State ownership of land as an instrument of controlling poor farmers (often through punitive dispossession should a household fail to support EPRDF). They reject the political use of land as a matter of power relations between EPRDF and the defenceless rural (and urban) poor. For all their assertion of commitment to social justice, they did not go to the details of real social issues such as housing, employment benefits, salary rise, pensions, gender parity, health services, education, linguistic justice (save for the commitment to make Afaan Oromo an additional working language of the Federal Government), well-being of the youth (in a country the large majority of which is young), disability, pollution, ‘regulation’ of commercial sex work (there are patches of reports suggesting that there are close to 1.8 million commercial sex workers in urban centres of Ethiopia today), families of members of the armed forces, etc, etc. Interestingly, while one hopes that the party committed to social democracy would be attracted to details of governing at a technocratic level (and thus becomes less populist in its posture), in the case of Medrek, it was surprisingly more proactive and populist in posture than technocratic. There was a clear interest in opening up the realm of the political (which the EPRDF was desperate to close). There was interest in engaging in the practice of politics rather than being caught in the technical details of governing. If EPRDF looked more like a reluctant populist, the opposition, especially Medrek, looked more like a reluctant technocrat.


But what does this election mean to each, and why do they engage in it? We now turn to this question by taking up each of these major parties as political actors. We start with the incumbent.


2.1. What is election for EPRDF?
It has become habitual now for the EPRDF, as a government, to pledge that it will ensure the election will be “peaceful, free and fair” with an accent on the peaceful already betraying its interest in stability as the hegemon. Over the years, it has also insisted that the National Electoral Board (NEBE) has adequately built its capacity to conduct elections in a free, impartial, and non-partisan manner. Often, it laments the absence of competitive political parties that can mount strong competition during the election and equally robust opposition in parliament after the election. This suggests that the EPRDF wants to see, at least formally, a competitive electoral process from which it will emerge a victor. More than it shows its commitment to act responsibly as a government, this declared interest in a “peaceful, free, and fair election” indicates that EPRDF understands the language of election and the idioms with which it operates in order to effectively secure legitimacy at home and abroad. Using this acquired global (if only liberal-international) language of producing democratic legitimacy, EPRDF puts on a spectacle of electoral democracy every five years in order to retrench itself as the dominant—almost pre-eminent—ruler of Ethiopia.


The election thus serves as a ritual of self-authorization to ‘govern’ (i.e., control and discipline) the country in the way the EPRDF wants (regardless of what the people want). The underside of this spectacle however is also EPRDF’s appetite for legally eliminating its opponents in the name of conducting a “peaceful, free, and fair” election. Securing the peace (against the infamous ‘Colour Revolution’, a dismissive reference to the Rose Revolution of Georgia and Orange revolution of Ukraine) has often meant suppressing dissent (through laws that constrain freedom of expression, assembly, press, and association) and rendering the opponents dysfunctional in the bureaucratic hustle associated with registration, financing, and preparation for campaign (on symbols, logo, name, etc). The most pre-emptive tool against a viable opposition is the scare that comes from the anti-terrorism law and the proscription of some political parties as terrorists. Considering this tendency of EPRDF and its use of the language of ‘struggle’ and ‘fighting’, among others – and reminding oneself that it is a political party that, at its TPLF core, is a party of guerrilla fighters – one can surmise that election is war by other means to the EPRDF. However, it deploys election as the paramount language doing politics and justifying the use of public office in the name of the people.


War By other means
It should be clear by now that for EPRDF, the practice of politics, including the conduct of election, is simply war by other means. So, not entirely surprisingly, its electoral efforts are: a) executed by the NEB; b) facilitated by the judicial and bureaucratic establishment; and c) sanctioned by the military establishment (i.e., the army, the police, and the intelligence) – federal and state, national and local. When the moment of reckoning comes, when the prospect of losing looms large, we realize where the real sovereignty lies – we come to know who is really sovereign, i.e., who has that ultimate power over life and death – when the army engages in muscle flexing. The sovereignty of the people (i.e., the nations, nationalities, and peoples) – even in its peculiar Ethiopian constitutional language – proves to be vacuous. The EPRDF consistently uses the language of struggle. They are combative in language/rhetoric, style, and in how they conduct themselves vis-à-vis their adversaries and the people. They stand in a military-style high alert mode always, in every respect. They routinely use military/police force, and they do more. They eliminate any credible opposition with the labelling and proscription as terrorist; they harass the already weak and fragmented opposition that seeks to scramble for an opening to sustain a political space, the moment of the political, as (scholars would say). They use the law and all other techniques of governance as a sword rather than a shield.


But why is EPRDF using election as a weapon in the war against its opponents? For all its triumphalist tone, why is EPRDF still acting more from what looks like aposition of fear and insecurity? Why it is that EPRDF has little faith in a democratic election conducted in a free and fair manner? Its invocation of extreme language such as the threat of terrorism, religious extremism, genocide, narrow nationalism/separatism, anti-diversity chauvinism, and potential dismemberment of Ethiopia as a country, might work to scare the people and its opponents but it also betrays the sense of despair not only of the party but also of the Ethiopian state in general. From the language used, a more dramatic catastrophe is hovering on the horizon. (At its core, of course, the cause of the fear lies in the nature of the Ethiopian state and the contradictions thereof.) Ultimately, the fear finds explanation in the contradiction in the EPRDF coalition, the inner intra-EPRDF tension that mirrors the broader political tension among groups in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s historic tension now found an institutional home in an organization that once suggested that it has resolved the contradiction through constitutional recognition of the principle of self-determination. Given this position of fear and insecurity (albeit only covert), it falls on the political opposition to divine some mechanism of staving off this fear and offer a sense of security not just for the country but also for the potentially losing EPRDF.


EPRDF Fears Democracy
EPRDF’s fear is no ordinary fear of loss. It is a deep fear of democracy. At every election, EPRDF is confronted by the democracy it always repressed, the democracy that haunts it as the one yet to come. It is confronted with the ‘democracy’ it invoked to perform a ritual but the democracy that is waiting to show forth at the mere discursive invocation, an impending democracy, leaping out of the fold, if only to humble the powerful rather than to empower the powerless. Presiding over a state form ridden with contradictions and a polity with a shaky foundation, EPRDF fears the ballot more than the bullet.
This fear of the ballot is not totally groundless. It had an antecedent. 2005 [2]. The day EPRDF tried a relatively free election – more out of overconfidence than interest in democracy as the rule of the humble – they nearly lost it to the opposition. It is often said that those who lose a battle are the ones that learn their bitter lessons better. EPRDF’s complete loss in Addis Abeba (and many other constituencies across the country’s urban and semi-urban areas) in 2005 must have taught them a lesson, but the lesson learnt did not prompt them to come up with a set of policies that are more appealing to the electorate. They merely adopted a strategy of attacking their opponents by using their privileged access to the state apparatus. Quickly, EPRDF jailed the leaders of the opposition, terrorized the peoples through mass arrest and killings, and started to legislate against civil society associations and independent press. Using the new modes of disciplining the bureaucracy such as the Business Process Reengineering (BPR) and other reform endeavors, mostly in the name of capacity building [3], they started to control institutions that had hitherto had professional and symbolic power.


At the societal level, they used a strategy of peripeheralizing the ‘center’, perhaps with an eye to ‘occupy’ the center and to center the margin [4]. One could sympathize with the project of centering the margins but centering the margin should not be at the expense of obliterating the center. EPRDF’s way of doing it resulted in its alienation of itself from the vast majority of the electorate by characterizing the political voices of the Amhara as ‘extremist unionists’ (or ‘chauvinist centralists’) and the voices of the Oromo as ‘extremist nationalists’ (or ‘narrow nationalists’). In the ethno-nationally charged context of Ethiopia’s politics, this meant the further deepening of the perception that EPRDF is merely a pro-Tigryan party who cares less for the voices and interests of the other peoples that are supposedly represented in the EPRDF coalition.


In the process, EPRDF not only betrayed its own fear as an organization, it created a sense of fear in the country, a fear it alleges to have come about because of the instability created by the opposition political parties. Apparently, EPRDF was engaged in the creation of a sense of impending catastrophe in order to bring about conditions necessary for it to re-appear on the scene as the benevolent, saving messiah. The ‘right’ is dubbed extremist (Interahamwe). The ‘left’ is dubbed extremist (parochialists). But, strikingly, the only party that was using extreme language is the EPRDF who has taken the self-appointed position of the moderate, i.e., the mediator of these extremist tendencies on the ‘left’ and ‘right’.


EPRDF is not a Majoritarian Party
The coalition of parties within EPRDF are not symmetrically related. Regardless of the formal pronouncement they make, everything EPRDF does suggests that there is a defacto hierarchy among these four members of the coalition. Thus, TPLF is the pre-eminently influential – for some, the only influential – political party. Next comes the ANDM. The OPDO comes third. The SPDM comes fourth. The simple explanation the TPLF officials give is the experience in the struggle (as reflected by the years they stayed in the struggle): 17 years for TPLF; 12-13 years for EPDM/ANDM; less than a year for OPDO (although some of the members such as Yonatan Debissa) are redeployed from ANDM to OPDO); and post-Derg years for SPDM. So, within the EPRDF coalition, members do not have equal votes or voices. The disciplinary practice of closed meetings, trainings, capacity building tours (as incentives/disincentives), evaluation meetings (the infamous gimgema), purging, and a myriad other modes of surveillance subvert EPRDF’s publicly avowed claim to being a democratic organization.

As a government, EPRDF sustains itself by deliberately blurring the separation between the executive and the judiciary, the executive and the legislature, the political executive and the armed forces (or the security apparatus), the political executive and the civil bureaucracy, etc. The lack of separation between the politics and the bureaucracy, politics and the institutions of accountability (such as the judiciary, the ombudsman, the anti-corruption commission, the human rights commission, the office of the Auditor general, etc) reinforce the anti-democratic-nature of the government.

EPRDF is the State: End of the Political, the Rise of the Technique and Aesthetics of Governmentality
EPRDF’s status as a coalition of several groups is only a veiled indication that the state is a patchwork of national groups with discordant perspectives on a diverse array of subjects. It is no wonder then that EPRDF poses as not only the representation but also the embodiment of the Ethiopian State. By identifying itself with the state, EPRDF became the repository of all the contradictions inherent to the state. Because of the legacy of imperial-colonialism, it became the new Master, the new superintendent, presiding over all the tensions/tussles. Through the constitutional-legal rhetoric, through a spectacle of buildings and roads (symbol of modernity and development), through a show of managerial efficiency in regulating/controlling the economy, through ruthless military strategy of securing the body politic, the EPRDF sought to create the illusion that there is no political problem in Ethiopia. In their narrative, there is only the problem of poverty and of corruption, i.e., economic problem and problem of (managerial) governance. By so doing, EPRDF technicalized the essentially political problem. In effect, it proclaimed the end of politics and ushered in the era of political closure [5].


In an interesting recent development, EPRDF is also starting not only to technicalize but also to aestheticize the state, the party, and the leaders, especially the image of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In accordance with its declared ethno-pluralist vision, EPRDF’s media/cultural institutions and icons engage in a massive reproduction of traditional songs, music, dances, dresses and images of the diverse “nations, nationalities, and peoples”. Cultural dresses are increasingly exoticized and massively produced and put on sale. (Even the politicians wear them on occasions.) Traditional song lyrics and dance styles are mixed with the modern songs of the Abyssinian core and presented to the public (both on CDs and in night clubs). Selected images (selected on the basis of stereotypes mainly) and icons are mass produced and commodified in the name of celebrating the ‘nations, nationalities, and peoples’, i.e., the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia. Public ceremonies (like Ireecha of the Oromo, Cambalaala of the Sidama, etc) are brought to the attention of the public media if only to satiate the voyeuristic gaze at these ‘other’, ‘primitive’, cultural artefacts [6]. The recent massification of the scarves of TPLF soldiers (symbolic of the dress style of the insurrectionist Tegadalays) on the event of commemorating the 40th anniversary of the TPLF (on which event the high level officials including the Prime Minister and his wife wore the scarves and draped the military jackets over their suits) is only an example of aestheticizing activities EPRDF is also indulging in. It looks like once a closure is definitively proclaimed (the question of nationalities, supposedly the most important political question in EPRDF’s book, is definitively answered; the state is transformed; unity on the basis of consent and mutual respect is attained), apart from the technicalizing, aestheticizing follows.


After years of technicalizing and increasingly aestheticizing the political, it is only natural that the closure of the political is followed by consideration of electoral politics as ‘war by other means’. But what about the opposition political parties? What is the election to them, or for them? We now turn to a brief consideration of this question.


2.2. What is election for the Political Opposition?
It must be clear to the opposition parties by now that this election is not a matter of policy choice. Nor is it a matter of leadership choices. It is not even a matter of improving life through the instrumentality of the political. Instead, for them, it is a way of interrogating the ‘pre-political’ moment, that moment of “beginning” that Derrida, in a different context [7], calls the abyss. It is a moment of questioning the legitimacy of the whole exercise, questioning and exposing the limits of the rules of the game (e.g. the electoral laws and institutions), the context within which the election takes place. For some of the parties that have ‘Southern’ constituencies, it could as well be a moment of questioning and challenging the unjust foundation of the polity and lamenting the loss and atrocity sustained in that violent inaugural moment and in the continued moment of EPRDF-inflicted violence. The opposition parties therefore should vie for every vote they can garner considering it a vote of disentanglement, a refusal to be locked in the technical work of governing as control and discipline. For the opposition, engagement in this election should be felt as a hate-love affair.


In other words, it is a difficult choice, a double bind, almost like a choice between different forms of being killed: hanged or lynched? It is a situation of “damn if you do, damn if you don’t.” In other words, you stay away from it, you refuse to participate, you will then quietly authorize EPRDF to make decisions of critical trans-generational import. You will authorize them to expose the land for the taking, to exert a policy that displaces a people, and to eventually uproot and exterminate them. It is this critical. On the other hand, you decide to take part in it, by so doing, you will probably end up legitimizing the state system that is the very cause of your oppression, especially considering the likelihood that the incumbent will not let up. Hence, the ambivalence and the perpetual irresolution of the opposition political partiesin the face of this election [8].


The ambivalence, the irresolution, the reflexivity, and the double-bind granted, what can they do then? There is no easy answer to this difficult question. But decision on the matter should, of necessity, consider, among others, the fact that EPRDF takes this as a war. As such, it is impregnable to the vulnerability that democracy exposes States to. Democracy in its simple form is a mode of humbling the great (more than even glorifying the humble). It is a way of making state accountable to ordinary people. It is the rule of no body, John Keane suggests. It is a realm where no body rules and no bodies rule [9] —the nameless and the powerless [10] —come to make decisions that have public ramifications. The fact that EPRDF views election as war is informed by the fact that the politics has not really been disarmed in Ethiopia, and as a result there is really no separation between the politicians and the army. The constitutional provision (art 87) that the two are separate is routinely bypassed. In part, owing to the fact that the army is at its core the army of the liberation movement that led the resistance to the Derg, and in part owing to the political tradition that knows no better than a militarized politics (and a politicized army), the politics of EPRDF is constantly militarized and its military is thoroughly politicized [11].


Understanding that election (and politics in general) is war by other means to EPRDF immediately implies that, to the opposition, the election is similarly a war by other means, only that theirs is a war of self-defence, a war of resistance. They seem to understand that in a war, only fools disarm themselves. To choose not to take part in the election is to rob themselves of the only tool of resistance they have at their disposal. It is tantamount to disarming themselves. I tend to believe that to choose not to take part in the election—and for the public not to vote–is not just an abdication of civic responsibility (although in a militarized politics there is little that is civic about it) but also capitulation of the meagre hold you have in the public life of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. This in turn suggests that the opposition should take the election not as a real contest for power but rather as an act of resistance, a push back to power. But one needs to engage with the electoral moment and engage with it critically, reflexively, and strategically. Practically, one needs to know how to use it without investing much hope in its potential delivery of good policy choices, or its potential to turn up good leadership, but in its ability to slow down EPRDF violence. The opposition need to invest more in its disruptive capability, i.e., in its capability to disrupt the dominant EPRDF narrative.


Given this is the context in which Election 2015 is happening, for the large majority of the ‘electorate,’ the election offers too little in terms of choosing the mode of governance of our country, or the policy choices that makes a difference to the lives of people, for that, apparently, is not what election is meant to be in Ethiopia. The structural limitation emanating from the state form and the anti-democratic posture of the EPRDF disallows that kind of election. Under these circumstances, for EPRDF, the election is a means of eliminating its enemies and ensconcing itself in its power thereby consolidating its rule, with or without the people. For the opposition parties and for the populace, the election can be a performative moment, a moment of resistance, a moment of ‘talking back’ to EPRDF’s hegemony. For the empire’s periphery, it is a moment of asserting or performing visibility, enhancing intelligibility of some of the humbler peoples before the Ethiopian state, and a moment of interrupting the dominant narrative. It can be a moment of resisting closure of the political (or a moment of opening it) in order to bring in an alternative story, told in a different voice, told from within the process, but perhaps contra the process itself. If properly used, it can create a moment of visibility, a moment when the pathos in the lived experience of the people is taken account of and brought to bear. If there were an opening for instrumental freedoms to exercise negative rights in the liberal tradition, the electoral moment, especially the right of people to election and the right of individuals to vote, could be strategically ‘performed’ to serve as a ‘voice of suffering’ [12].


Given politics is the art of the possible—the art of doing what you can with what you have—if this election has to happen in this non-ideal context, to the opposition parties of Ethiopia, it might be profitable if it is used as a moment of bringing in the political into the politics, i.e., asking the ‘who’ question in relation to the polity, the inaugural moment (both of the ancient and of the recent past), the terms of inclusion-exclusion, the boundaries of identity (who is in, who is not), and who has a say on what we become, and how. This return to the political, this calling back of the ‘who’ question, destabilizes the EPRDF narrative of progress, development, and federal utopia. It also destabilizes the traditional hegemonic Ethio-Abyssinian narrative in which the ‘other’ peoples’ absence is manifestly present. In a way, for the parties of the ‘south’, it might be a performance of self-inclusion, a moment of reframing the terms of membership and participation in the polity-to-come. For the parties of the ‘north’ and the ‘center’, it will as well be a moment of re-inclusion from what they have been excluded for almost a generation. For most of the Southern parties such as those in Medrek, the election might as well be a moment of performing lamentation, especially in the light of the atrocities of the past and their present unintelligibility. For them, election will be a moment of indicting the past that was never ‘our’ (shared) past and a moment of looking for a new beginning. If, as the most recent turn of events suggested, hope and anticipation is on the rise—especially as the one seen in Oromia and the SNNPRS–if all goes well, and if EPRDF’s violent temperament remains under some spell, maybe, just maybe, a new beginning will be in the horizon. May be Ethiopia’s people of redemption will have brought us to the liminal moment of reinventing ourselves as a people—be it as a demos or as plural demoi with mutual recognition in a common home.


3. Conclusion
By way of a conclusion, I will like to directly speak to the questions I raised at the beginning. What does election mean to EPRDF? And what is the election to the opposition political parties? To EPRDF, the election is nothing but a ‘war by other means’. Its politics was never disarmed. It embodies and lives out the contradictions at the heart of the Ethiopian state. It harbors the insecurity of the state and lives under perpetual insecurity. It has anti-majoritarian, i.e., anti-democratic, tradition and practice. It is not internally democratic. It fears democracy. It secures coherence by a series of acts of control and discipline within the party. In the same way, it constantly securitizes the state (perhaps only to secure itself). It also fabricates fear so that it can rule as the ‘messiah’ that is also authorized to eliminate the enemies of the state as such.


To the opposition parties, i.e., mainly to EDP and Medrek (whose ideological inclination to liberal democracy and social democracy, respectively, distinguish it from), the election is a double-bind. They go into it with ambivalence. They risk legitimizing the system if they take part. They risk authorizing the incumbent to seal the closure to the political if they refuse to take part. It is a non-ideal situation. In other words, if they take part, they risk complicity in the fundamentally anti-democratic practices of EPRDF and the injustice it seeks to contain and perpetuate. If they don’t, they risk not only deprivation of the people with their only opportunity to express their lamentation (using electoral rights as a voice of suffering), they passively authorize EPRDF to celebrate closure to the political and usher in the era of technicalizing and aestheticizing politics and the political. As a result, to the extent that election is war by other means to EPRDF, so should it be to the opposition political parties. Only to them, it is not their war. It is a mode of resistance. Seen in this sense, it is not wise at all for them to not take part. In fact, from the turn of events in the last few days, one can see that their participation within the limited space has opened the space for discussing the political, for consientizing people, for allowing people to think closely about politics, and to hope against hope, to defy power, and to speak back to hegemonic forces through words, rallies, and, hopefully, through their votes over this weekend.

Is there any other point in being part of the motion beyond winning (or losing) this election? Yes, because the election, if strategically used, will help us keep the hope of renewal alive, creating the conditions necessary for redemption. As such, it has the performative significance of articulating resistance not so much as to dislodge the incumbent (which has little to yield in terms of transforming an intrinsically violent state in which relations are uneven anyway) as to resist a closure in the narrative and to preserve the story of suffering under a repressive state, to sustain a longing for the democracy yet to come in another Ethiopia. Democracy: rule of the humble by the humble…, the rule of no body…, the rule of nobodies… the rule of Gabre Qoricha.


Ed’s note: Tsegaye R Ararssa is a PhD Candidate at The University of Melbourne Law School, and can be reached at:; or




[1] Given the fact that there is hardly a serious debate among the opposition parties themselves (not because they have no differences, but rather because as they focus on the task of articulating their opposition to the incumbent, they avoid disarticulating each other), I will consider the Ethiopian political class broadly into the incumbent and the opposition. Where appropriate, I will mention peculiarities of specific opposition parties often based on their primary constituencies as ‘north’ and ‘south’.

[2] Not to mention Election 2000 especially in the SNNPRS (in localities such as Hosana, Durame, et al).

[3]BPR, BSC, Legal Education Reform, Justice Reform (Judicial Reform, Prison Reform, etc as part of the broader legal reform projects) could be cited as examples.

[4]In a move at co-opting the elites of the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia, there appeared new names in the list of ministers, names hitherto unknown to the Ethiopian core. Soon, the Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Day—8 December– started to be celebrated. A new law that regulates the honour and use of the national flag and emblem (which emphasizes the diversity and equality of peoples) was issued. The threat posed by the opposition to EPRDF’s power was reinterpreted as a threat to reverse the federal dispensation. EPRDF re-christened itself as the champion of the rights of Nations, nationalities, and Peoples. Diversity was celebrated with more zest. The building in which EPRDF had its head office (which is also the compound of the House of Federation) covered by a big banner which says that our diversity is “our beauty; our beauty is our unity.” One of the measures EPRDF took to demonstrate this symbolic performance of centering the margin is its proclamation of Addis Ababa as the capital city of Oromia. It also orchestrated the notion that opposition-won Addis Ababa has become a masterless property that went awash with maladministration and corruption. Many of the new executive officials appointed to the cabinet position of the cities and the positions of General Managers of the sub-cities were drawn from among the elites of the ‘other’ peoples of Ethiopia.

[5]After Haileselassie was restored to power by the British in 1941, a similar era of political closure was promoted for a long time. Political tensions were replaced [???] by the questions of economic modernization (chiefly through monetizing the economy, encouraging foreign investment, and refining the State’s extractive power through tax systems). But the closure didn’t last long. The challenge of the periphery (the subjects of the empire) and of the bottom (the poor citizens of the centre) started to mount pressure on the regime. Both sought political solutions. The emperor offered military and managerial (both expert and/or technocratic) solutions. The rupture of the 1974 revolution opened up the political realm. It was almost as if Pandora’s box was opened, and a floodgate of political questions inundated the public space. The Derg sought to contain the political questions first through gestures of appeasement to the leftist intelligentsia and later through terror and military efficiency. Afterwards, it sought to produce illusions of socialist utopia. With the proclamation of ‘Hibretesebawinet (and Ethiopia Tikdem), a notion later understood as Ethiopian socialism, it declared the end of politics once more. At the closure of politics, war and economics, military engagement with foes and resource redistribution to friends—both the domain of experts (i.e., soldiers and bureaucrats of the redistributive machine in a command economy)–became the domain of resolving thoroughly political issues.
When the Derg collapsed under the pressure of nationalist insurgents and the slackening of international support after the collapse of the eastern bloc in the wake of USSR’s Perestroika, we were once again reminded that the closure was only temporary. EPRDF ascended to power, and for a while it looked like the door to the political domain is held wide open. EPRDF consolidated its grip over the power and installed itself as the inheritor of the empire (excluding all contending political forces).The more EPRDF practised closure, the political class of yesteryears (of the Haileselassie’s and the Derg) regrouped themselves only to emerge as the new Ethiopian ‘right’ (mainly rallying around a politics that privileges the totalized Amhara language, culture, and interests in the polity). They operated mostly from abroad (from communities of the Ethiopian diaspora), at times acting almost like a government in exile.AAPO, AEPO, EDP, CUD, UDJ, Semayawi, etc
On their part, they also closed the political space in which to discuss the ways of transforming the state from an old warlike empire of autocracy and the aristocracy to a republic of free co-equal citizens. They did this primarily by aestheticizing the political. In a very conservative turn, they held on to the icons of the times of Haileselassie and beyond. Political speeches have more a trace of nostalgia than of hope. Politics and political leaders are more and more aestheticized. Political symbols became the object of aesthetic gaze and religious veneration. The tyrant image of Haileselassie is submerged by an aestehtico-religious act of rehabilitating him into not only a statesman but also of a God or a black messiah. Rastafarianism, reggae music, and massification of his pictures as icons played a huge part in this. The tricolor (of the flag) became an object of worship. Memorializing the bygone days through memoirs of political and military leaders became the more popular cultural trend in the city of Addis and other urban areas. Songs by a pop lyricist and singer Tedy Afro (‘Haileselassie,’ ‘Jah Yasteseriyal’, ‘Abebayehoy’, ‘Tikur Sew’, ‘Seba Dereja’, etc) played an immense role in this enterprise of absolution and rehabilitation through aestheticizing. The newly minted Berhanu Tezera song Wegene/Hagerie, intended to be a sound track and campaign song by Semayawi, is only the most recent iteration of this long tradition of aestheticizing and privileging a particular kind of politics, especially the politics of unity, i.e. andinet (literally one-ness). The privileging of unity was conjoined by its double, the demonizing of the politics of diversity, especially the one rhetorically valorised by EPRDF. By depoliticizing and aestheticizing Ethiopian unity and by politically-demonizing the issue of diversity, the elites of the political class of the bygone days seem to be ‘naturalizing’ the state, turning its acceptance as legitimate as a matter of received wisdom. The state thus is removed from the political realm of criticism, interrogation, and re-examination. Through enchanting aesthetic manoeuvring, the opposition ethio-political class makes state transformation irrelevant.
[6]Of course, the Ashenda of the Tegaru and the Sheday of the Amhara are also put on TV spectacle in recent years.

[7]Jacques Derrida, ‘Declarations of Independence,’ New Political Science7/1 (1986), 5.

[8]It is interesting to observe that there are opposition political parties that actually call the public to boycott the election. Ginbot 7’s leader, Dr. Berhanu Nega, has just made this call over a radio from exile.

[9]John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy, (Pocket Books, 2009). The other phrase he uses is democracy is a dispensation in which “whoever rules”.

[10]In my Constitutional Law classes, when lecturing on democracy, I randomly state that democracy is the rule of nobodies, the rule of a certain Gabre Qoricha. The students would quickly react, rather quizzically: ”the rule of WHO?” I say, “precisely my point.” Gabre Qoricha is a person with a name that is either too familiar or too exotic. Both ways, he is no body – at least to them. He is not famous, rich, or powerful. He is the anonymous metaphor for a John Doe who enjoys as much right in the booth as the most widely known, richest, and most powerful person on earth. Democracy, as Robert Dahl, On Democracy (Yale U Press, 2011) had once said, unleashes “the logic of equality.” This is not to say Gabre Qoricha is a fictional character that doesn’t exist in reality. In fact, he is a real guy I know, a humble guy with a very modest means who made a living doing the most menial jobs in the area I grew up in. He chops firewood, erects the tents when there is mourning, he fetches water, and he clears the bushes in the villas of the well to do. For obvious reasons, Gabre Qoricha is not always clean physically. He might also speak foul, especially when he drinks local liqueur, katikala (alias areqe). But overall, he is a decent man whose life is generally uneventful. Often, I conclude my classes by insisting that until we can imagine a Gabre Qoricha making and breaking our government—in a dramatic shift away from the tradition that privileges the educated (also encapsulated in the Amharic saying ‘yetemare yigdelegn’)-we can’t imagine democracy.

[11]The “indoctrination programs” (done by a department with the same name) of the army routinely provides orientation to the army in order to inculcate the principles of revolutionary democracy, developmentalism, self-determination from EPRDF’s book. Of course, the subtlety is that this is done in the name of conscientizing the army to their duty to preserve the constitutional order.

[12]Upendra Baxi, ‘Voices of Suffering and the Future of Human Rights’ 8Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems (1998), 125. See also his, The Future ofHuman Rights, (3rd ed) (Oxford




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