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Opinion: Ethiopia’s new Parliament: the inauguration of electoral authoritarianism


Yesterday, 5 October 2015, the new Ethiopian parliament was officially opened. The best depiction that captured the essence of this new parliament is its paramount role to the consolidation of electoral authoritarianism in Ethiopia. The parliament got its mandate from a general election held on 24th May 2015. The electiontook place in a context where the ruling party massively manipulated state resources and institutions and established structures of political control down to each household level, especially in the rural areas. There were also substantiated cases of harassment, intimidation, imprisonment and extra-judicial killings of opposition party members including candidates both in the pre and post-election period. As a result, the ruling party and its affiliates claimed to have won 100 per cent of the parliament seats. Hence the entire processes of the election were nothing but a practices of putting a democratic mask to an authoritarian face.     

In the current parliament, 20 years after its inception, Ethiopians have witnessed a new prime minister taking the oath. During the last four parliaments, what remained constant was the person who was taking the Premiership. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi presided over all the previous parliaments. He is best described as ‘a leader who tried to make dictatorship acceptable’. After his unexpected death in August 2012, his hand picked successor Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn took the oath as a Prime Minister elect. Ethiopia is set to have only the fourth leader (excluding short-term transitional leaders) in the last seven decades of its political history.

Compared to the previous parliament the ruling party adds only two seats which were previously won by an opposition party and an independent. Numerically it might not be significant to move from 99.6 per cent to 100 per cent. However, this has a huge symbolic meaning to millions of Ethiopian citizens.  Two decades after adopting a constitution that instilled multi-party democracy, the last two elections proved the opposite. The ruling party has become very effective to render all constitutionally guaranteed institutions and practices of democracy to establish a de facto one party state.

The two narratives on Ethiopia

At the international scene, two different but not unrelated narratives dominate Ethiopia’s image.  On the one hand reports coming out from organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and CPJ focus on the sever violation of civil and political rights by the regime in Ethiopia. Many of these reports  are well substantiated cases. These include: the killing and mass arrest of Oromo student protesters, the case of Zone Nine bloggers in prison for more than 500 days with a bogus charge, the imprisonment of political party leaders charged with terrorism, and the increasing harassment and persecution of journalists. The most horrendous aspect of such cases is that they are presented at the court to give a fake image of due process of the court of law. However, the truth is the court room has now become the epic centre of serious violation of rights. It is where justice is denied and political priorities prevail.

On the other hand, there are reports coming out from institutions such as the  UNDP, World Bank and most recently from Overseas Development Institute (ODI). The central focus of these reports is praising the success of the regime in Ethiopian for reducing poverty,  increasing agricultural products and enhancing access to education, health and road. The high and sustained economic growth of nearly 11% for more than a decade, the successful social protection programs and the cautious and effective development planning constitute the core of this success story. Most of these reports recognize the significant and measurable improvements on the overall wellbeing of the majority of Ethiopian citizens.

Most of the times, both kinds of reports fail to speak to each other in a systematic manner. Hence the bigger picture of politics of development remains elusive. Especially reports that focus on the economic success of the regime usually emphasise that their focus is not on governance or politics. Usually such kind of statement is followed by wanting political analysis that is hardly integrated to inform the central position of the reports. The reports remain very technocratic by over-emphasizing technical capacity of planning, policy synergy and effective execution. For instance, the latest report by ODI recognizes the remarkable determination of the government to put farmers’ training centres in every village. However there is a limited effort of exploring the political significance of these training centres in ensuring the unparalleled dominance of the ruling party. There is limited effort to explicate the political relevance of such developmental institutions or structures and developmental purposes of political structures. Such limitations only tell the story of a half full glass without reasonably reflecting on the half empty.

However in the everyday life of Ethiopians, both the rosy images of remarkable economic growth and pro-poor government investment coexist with an increasingly repressive political context. And the incumbent that aspires to build a democratic developmental state is in control of this situation. Since the government seeks to derive its legitimacy from what it delivers, it uses reports that commend its success to justify its authoritarian rule. On the other hand, the critical reports are always regarded as attacks from fanatic neoliberal actors that seek to destabilize the country.

For the coming five years, the new parliament will preside over the modernist mission of the government to bring the country to the levels of a middle income country by 2025. There is very little hope for change with regard to the political situation. But the economic growth will continue steadily since its political relevance is unquestionable for the regime.

To conclude, the inherently intertwined nature of the political repression and economic growth is well captured by one joke that revolves around the recently inaugurated light rail transport system in Addis Ababa. This 34km light rail way that crosses the city north-south and east-west cost $475 million. People are sarcastically saying that it will make their frequent travel to visit hundreds of political prisoners in Kality and Kilinto, on the southern outskirts of the city, easier.

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