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Op:ED: The prospect of a coalition government in Ethiopia is real. Lessons from the politics of compromise

The first face-to-face meeting between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and leaders of 81 opposition parties currently in Ethiopia was held in December 2018.

Belachew Mekuria, PhD, For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, October 01/2019 – 2020 elections are nigh and some campaign type of moves are observed in many parts of the country. This is a unique moment of history in Ethiopia’s nascent democracy, elections culture and practices. Not even the highly glorified 2005 election will be a match considering the long journey we have come since in terms of de/strengthening institutions having a direct bearing in pre, during and post-election topics and processes, the highly antagonizing rhetoric that defines many of the political party agendas that are emerging lately and the irreparable fracture of EPRDF-the erstwhile dominant conglomerate of four ethnic based giant parties that have ‘won’ every election ever since the current constitutional order is installed.

Will we have the capabilities to effectively oversee the hundreds of thousands of electoral districts, to distribute sensitive election materials in time, to efficiently collect and count the votes? Will we have the capacity to ensure security throughout the spectrum of the electoral process and its immediate aftermath? Will the increasing regionalization of our security apparatuses provide an opportunity or pause a threat to the required immediate responses should any spoilers of this hugely coveted democratic process occasion themselves? Will we have an impartial adjudicatory body (electoral tribunals and specialized court benches) that are up for the task of renditioning a swift and thorough decision, again should there be a need for it? The questions are endless and our responses are understandably nuanced. It is hoped that someone somewhere has the checklist to tick, one point at a time.

This piece is set to examine one of the ‘ifs’ should the election outcomes lead to consideration of coalition governments formation, both at the central and regional levels. This is becoming increasingly likely due to the growing number of alternatives that are going to fight it out in the election platform compelling us to rule out the old order of an all-EPRDF majority in Parliament. As a side issue, one topic that should not be overlooked is whether the old coalition of the BIG4 will still campaign together under the same agenda and what their fate will be after the election. The currency of elaborate rules on coalition formation is more pronounced considering the fact that diverse political parties, together the EPRDF (or better to refer to them as A-O-S-T, meaning Amhara, Oromo, Southern and Tigray), will be contending for the central power grab that will only happen through elite bargain and not what comes out as a result of the counting of votes.  

Coalition Agreement

Forming coalitions is not an easy task as observed even in established democracies such as Belgium and Germany. The latter had endured over five months of deadlock last year to reach at creating yet again another coalition government through a painful negotiation process. The final outcome of such negotiations is called ‘Coalition Agreement.’ Of particular interest as having an established expertise in coalition government negotiation and that may provide useful lessons to Ethiopia is the Belgian experience. Setting aside the world record the country holds as having survived the longest without a government while negotiating its birth, Belgium is run under a tri-lingual federal arrangement with a hereditary monarchy that is meant to symbolize the country’s continuity as a ‘Nation.’ It is in rare occasions like where there is deadlock in guaranteeing continued governance that the King would be brought in as an authority to oversee the institutionalization of the government. Since 1954, this small European country has never had a one-party government and continues to operate by coalition governments.

What is also usually not envisaged is the possibilities of having joint government/administration at the sub-national level, in our case, at regional level where, again, obtaining majority seats in the States’ Councils may be difficult in the upcoming election, necessitating the establishment a coalition of parties. Belgium has the long tradition of such agreements being concluded not just at the federal level, but also at the sub-national governments. Relative to Belgium, Ethiopia presents more societal and political cleavages and complexities as it has linguistic and political groups which by far exceed that of the Belgians. While two major linguistic groups actively dominate the political sphere of Belgium which further split into diverse political ideologies, there are a minimum of nine ethno-linguistic political parties in Ethiopia which no doubt make the task of consensus democracy and coalition agreements relatively difficult. For such agreements to materialize, ‘rules of the game’ must be agreed that guide the process, because in these situations the transparent and just process will be as good as guaranteeing a just outcome that will durably bind the parties together. For that reason, coalition agreement in Belgium is interestingly referred to as an instrument of conflict prevention, particularly during the tenure of that particular legislature.

Below is a brief outline of the steps that the Belgian system religiously follows every time the need for coalition formation arises, primarily during the periodic elections or whenever the government fails to maintain the required vote of confidence in parliament and is consequently dissolved.

Steps in coalition formation in Belgium

Belgium is a tiny European country (just to get some idea, it is 1/80th of the size of Congo) with a little over 11 million inhabitants that carry the burden of living with complex issues emanating from its linguistic and increasingly economic diversity along the two major language groups. Unlike Ethiopia, only three language communities (Dutch, French and German-mere 1% of the overall population) exist, unable to finding a common path to end their fault lines, but having mastered the art of living together with those differences. The Belgian history of statehood is just 189 years and its federal system as old as ours, which was adopted during their fourth state reform in 1993. The complexity of its politics is best explained by the fact that it has been governed by a coalition of opposing political parties for over half a century, every negotiation of a coalition government lasting for a long time that exceptionally went to a world record of 541 days. This has inevitably led to the development of refined procedure from which lessons could be drawn for our country.

The process begins by the King who holds initial discussions with the political parties to get an understanding of the directions this may take. Immediately after those preliminary discussions, he appoints the informateur. ‘The role of the informateur is to inform the King about the possible coalition [who] starts meeting with the party presidents, in order to see which parties are willing to engage in negotiations.’ (Kris, The Politics of Belgium: governing a divided society, p 149). Once the informateur has enough material to move the process forward, s/he reports back to the King who will then appoint the formateur, in most cases the future Prime Minister, and who will have to lead the difficult negotiation process. Series of discussions are held with the party delegates (two to three in number from each) and with consultation of experts whenever necessary. What makes these negotiations, bargains and consultations extremely difficult is that every party that is going to join the coalition will want to see its campaign policy reflected in the coalition agreement which usually is not that straightforward. At the end of the day however everyone knows that this will not be a one-party interest, rather an outcome of compromises from all sides.

Once an initial agreement is ripe for onward action, each party to the marriage calls its own congress to separately discuss coalition agreement independently. Outcomes of such a discussion may not necessarily be full endorsement and may sometimes lead to resetting the whole process back to the drawing board. Assuming that this has been endorsed by each political party congress that is going to form the coalition government, negotiations begin with respect to division of the ministerial portfolios which usually follow a sort of mathematical points formula, 3-2-1. The Prime Minister’s post is given 3 points followed by the various Ministers, Presidents of the Lower House and the Senate as well as the seat in European Commission being given 2 points and Secretaries of States (more or less the same as State Ministers in our case) taking 1 point. The rest will be a mechanical distribution on the basis of the number of seats a political party holds in parliament, and the allocation of portfolios being made starting from the largest to the lowest seat holder. There is understandably a push to get positions that best align to the policy agenda the respective parties are trying to push during the particular legislative tenure, though such wishes may not always be realized.

At this stage, we have a coalition agreement that has garnered the support of the political parties that are joining hands to commence the works of government. Following this consensus, what remains is the debate in the floors of the parliament. The outcome of this debate is predictable in most of the cases because of the dominance the parties that have joined hands to establish the coalition government will have in parliament. Once given the vote of confidence, the coalition agreement will be published and government begins its work of governing.  Therefore, through the coalition agreement, the requirement that a government/executive should have majority seats in parliament is complied with, which otherwise has not happened through elections and/or by maintaining a vote of confidence throughout the governing period.

Governing in the interim

What can an outgoing government do while waiting for a new one, following an election without a single majority winner or after a vote of no confidence, is an important question and even more so in circumstances where negotiations for the birth of a replacement extends for months. Belgium has developed a mechanism through practice that limit the actions of a departing government to what are known in general as ‘current affairs.’ In rather broader terms, three areas are considered appropriate as falling within current affairs that must be performed during the transition. These relate to any urgent matters such as the ones that threaten the country’s security and/or sovereignty, daily management as they relate to the civil service which operates a large welfare state machinery and continuation of any political decisions made before the departing government. What is extremely important is that decisions under the guise of current affairs are continuously subjected to judicial review to make sure that no excesses are observed.

Recalling the then government’s plethora of mis/actions that followed the 2005 Ethiopian elections, it is of paramount importance to closely examine the mandates of an outgoing government. Our constitution envisages a government in an interim period where the parliament is dissolved as per Article 60 before the end of its term. This could be interpreted to also apply in situations where coalition formation takes an extended time following a contested election that has not led to a single or coalition of parties winning majority seats. More or less similar term as the Belgians is employed under Article 60(5) which restricts the outgoing government’s tasks to only ‘conducting the day-to-day affairs of government.’ What could and could not be covered under this day-to-day affair however is nowhere interpreted.

Where we are heading?

Ethiopia’s state craft through elite negotiation will be put to a test come May next year and we should fear of a scenario where we end up being caught unprepared. The biggest mistake reformers commit over and over again is finding themselves laboring on a wholesale reform (ስር-ነቀል ለውጥ) that usually ends up achieving almost nothing. Many learn the art of incrementality the hard way and usually when it is too late. Belgium’s experimentation on federal state structure offers useful lesson that has come a long way in compromises while more work of perfecting the system awaits both actions of political elites and the community. As Kris (referred above, p 242) put it, ‘political elites in Belgium have indeed displayed an incredible degree of creativity in crafting subtle compromises between demands that were at first sight fully incompatible.’ Not all negotiations have led to a conclusive agreement, rather a number of subjects are parked by agreeing to disagree. The issues on Brussels, its boundaries and interests of the Flemish minorities that reside in the city remain subjects on which agreement is far from a success after six successive reforms of their governance structure. However, they continue to sustain the polity through well structured discussions that do not disrupt peace and the state’s functions.

The commitment to organize the elections as per the constitutionally fixed period is a praiseworthy act of the Ethiopian government. However, there is need to carefully look at the turn of events, the changing political landscape, patterns of political parties’ formation and how the widening democratic space will be causing a shift in voters’ behaviors. Where the outcomes of the election are totally unpredictable and the support to the traditional coalition is crumbling, not only from voters but also from within, it is high time to search for the playbook that will guide the negotiation process. Though it is easy to predict that there will be more than one political party winning seats for the parliament, it is less so when it comes to the birth of a coalition government from this parliament. How are discussions going to commence? Which office/institution will have the upper hand in leading the negotiation? Other than registering coalitions, what will be the role of the electoral board? What are the specific roles of our President during these processes? In the absence of Constitutional Inquiry Commission’s interpretation as precedent, how are we going to understand ‘the day-to-day affairs of the government’ which are to be performed awaiting the full-term government? All these and other questions beg for answers. It is hoped that some of the lessons from Belgium as outlined above will be useful in helping out thought processes. AS   

Editor’s Note: Belachew Mekuria (PhD), was former commissioner of the Ethiopian Investment Commission. He can be reached at

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