Three weeks after Ethiopia held its sixth general results on June 21 official results are yet to be announced for a sizable number of the 440 constituencies where polls were conducted. As the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) releases a slate of both certified and provisional results in small tranches, the ruling Prosperity Party seems to be on track to secure an overwhelming majority in both Parliament and regional state councils. While it may be premature to declare the party to be the presumptive winner of the elections in view of the large number of constituencies whose outcomes are in dispute, it is more likely than not to be returned to power come October when the next government is due to be installed in office. Barring a reversal of fortune for the parties which are on the back foot Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) is set to be sworn in for a five-year term as the freshly elected House of Peoples’ Representatives commences its session.
As is the norm in many countries the party that wins the consent of the electorate through elections is granted the mandate to govern Ethiopia. The 1994 constitution of Ethiopia provides as much, stipulating that a political party or a coalition of political parties that has the greatest number of seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives shall form the Executive and lead it. The constitutions of all regional states also contain a similar provision regarding the assumption of political power in their respective territories. In a departure from this norm Prime Minister Abiy announced that if the Prosperity Party were to emerge victorious in the general elections his party would appoint members of opposition parties to various posts at all levels of government. Though cynics may say that the premiere’s announcement is a publicity stunt given the opposition figures joining local, regional and federal governments will not have the power to influence policies, it has merits that are worth discussing here.
One of the benefits of a regime of government where a meaningful number of opposition party members are given positions of authority in the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary is that it goes some way to resolving a thorny question in a democratic system: how to prevent a very successful political movement from gaining too much control. The idea of checks and balances are shaken to their cores when a hugely successful party, elected apparently legitimately at the ballot box, captures all of the branches and powers of government. This is because the other major modalities of separation of powers, after either one election or many elections, permit winning political coalitions to exercise almost unlimited power. Bringing on board opposition parties, by contrast, enables them to exercise at least a modicum of real power and constrain successful political figures, regardless of how successful particular winning coalitions might be in democratic elections.
Allowing political parties/coalitions which lost elections to have a seat at the table in terms of decision making helps them gain the necessary experience on how to govern if they come to control the levers of power. Major elected political figures – and their political assistants and the technical bureaucratic officials associated with them – will have experience actually running a ministry, a parliamentary committee, or a court, regardless of which political party they identify with and whether that political party is a part of the winning or the losing political coalition. The benefits of this experience are obvious. First, in the unfortunate event of an attack which decimates the government or any other need to quickly reestablish the government, there would be an adequate pool of trained professionals to take control. Second, transitions between governments would not be so abrupt and inefficient. If the government needed to tackle an urgent issue or a dangerous war or foreign policy crisis, there would not be as much difficulty in shifting from one elected government to another. This is because there would already be a ready supply of functionaries of the previously losing – and now winning political coalition – ready to take power from day one.
The decision to give the parties which are handed an electoral defeat the opportunity to matter politically constitutes a goodwill gesture which ensures that they, and by extension the citizens who voted for them, are adequately represented in the political and bureaucratic process. In other words, all voices are represented in government, not just in dissent but in governing. No matter how much the winning political party/coalition might want, the main losing political voices would not only be heard in the institutions of government, but would also occasionally govern. Consequently, the move will hopefully play a constructive role in tempering the political tension gripping a fragile democracy like Ethiopia and thereby take the democratization process a step further. Due to the advantages stated above, therefore, tapping members of opposition parties for government posts is a laudable measure. The question is whether the parties willing to take the Prosperity Party on its offer. Therein lies the rub.