In the last two elections, the ruling party, and its allies, won 99.9 percent and 100 percent of the seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR). This result left substantial number of votes given to the opposition parties unrepresented in the HPR. In his last week’s state of the union address, President of the republic, Mulatu Teshome (PhD), made an unprecedented revelation by admitting this assertion. The electoral system in effect has left out demands that might have been represented by parties other than the ruling party, he conceded. And he promised that his government would be engaged in electoral law reform process in the coming years. However, many argue as to what should be included in this reform and if the reform is even enough, writes Solomon Goshu.
It is common to see scholars and politicians questioning the suitability of first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system for the election of members of the House of Peoples’ Representatives since the early days of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Indeed, Article 54 (2) of the Constitution states, “Members of the House shall be elected from’ candidates in each electoral district by a plurality of the votes cast.” Not many constitutions regulate election systems in the world.
Obviously, unlike previous times, the 2015 general election results were enough to debate on the electoral system strongly. The results show that the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and its affiliates won all federal and regional states. The results have ignited a debate on the contributions of the electoral system towards the 100 percent result.
Some argue that given the overwhelming and sweeping victory of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in the 2010 as well as the 2015 elections, which has precluded the emergence of a meaningful parliamentary opposition in Ethiopia, perhaps the country needs to switch to a Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system.
Moreover, the impacts of the ruling party’s sweeping victory have been analyzed from many directions. In a democratic system, winning 100 percent of the seats is indeed an extreme rarity. Many contend that there cannot be a healthy and stable democracy if there is no parliamentary opposition. Some warn that if the views of those who oppose the incumbent cannot be heard in parliament, then they will find an outlet in other less peaceful and constructive forms. That may explain the tendency of many commentators in relating the protests in different parts of the country to the election results.
“This change of heart on the issue of electoral system seems to have been prompted by the undesirable consequence of the current plurality electoral system i.e. the EPRDF’s (with affiliates) complete dominance of the law making body, which, as some argue, has in turn contributed to the current turmoil in the country,” Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele (PhD), is a constitutional lawyer specializing on local governments in Ethiopia, says.
Many advice the ruling party not to exclude the opposition from playing a meaningful role in the mainstream politics as it will breed the frustrations of the public that voted for the opposition which may in turn lead to conflict gradually. In response, the ruling party promised to devise mechanisms of hearing the voices of the people unrepresented within the legislature while paying less attention to the ever diminishing roles of the opposition.
However, one has to note that the only difference between election 2010 and election 2015 is the presence and absence of one opposition member, Girma Seifu. Of course, some are of the views that the cumulative effect of the past decade is rather the main factor that gave rise to such widespread protests. According to other commentators, the political space and democratization in the country has regressed since the promising election 2005.
Ideally, political parties are the best platforms to articulate the diverse interests of the public. So far, the contributions of the opposition in the political life of the country in the last 25 years demonstrate a fact far from this ideal scenario.
Now, the government has announced that it is considering all options to amend the electoral law and the FPTP electoral system. In his opening speech to the joint session of the House of Peoples’ Representatives and the House of Federation, the President of the Republic, Mulatu Teshome (PhD) announced the plan publicly.
“In the last two elections, the ruling party, and its allies, won 99.9% and 100% of the seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives. Although, all those seats were won through free and fair, periodic elections, the result left the substantial number of votes given to opposition parties unrepresented in the House of Peoples’ Representatives. The electoral system in effect left out demands that might have been represented by parties other than the ruling party. Before the next election, we need to widen the political and democratic platforms and provide a legal framework, so the House of Peoples’ Representatives can best represent a variety of voices and provide for diverse political interests,” he said.
“A model will be set up to reform the country’s electoral law to place proportional representation and a majority system on an equal and balanced footing, after detailed negotiations between political parties, to reflect the spirit of compromise, guided by the principles of transparency and national interest. This will allow the voices of all walks of life to be heard in the House of Peoples’ Representatives and in the House of Federation,” Mulatu added.
It is interesting to note that the government’s admission that it is dangerous to exclude the diverse interests in the parliament is rather sudden. When Getachew Reda, Government Communications Affairs Office Minister, was asked in his interview with the Reporter just after two weeks from the 2015 general election why some lay the blame on the FPTP electoral system and call for constitutional amendment to proportional election system or a hybrid system, he responded that “The FPTP system is considered to be one of the most democratic and inclusive electoral systems in the world. Especially in a diverse society such as ours, the only chance very small communities would have themselves represented, say in the legislature, is if this system is fully operational.”
However, Getachew also indicated that the government has been undertaking plans to study whether there needs to be a change. He pointed out that the study which was undertaken in 2012 would be further enhanced if something meaningful comes out of it.
One year after the election period, following the government’s promise to respond to the ‘genuine’ questions of the public from the protests held in different parts of the country particularly on good governance, the issue of electoral reform come to the scene once more when four senior leaders of the EPRDF explained how the ruling party would respond to the challenges. Bereket Simon, former Minister of Information and one of the few ideologues of the ruling party, said, “It is the firm belief of the EPRDF that the diverse interests of the public cannot be represented by one party. Whether we like it or not, the results in the last two general elections are achieved through legally verified ways. Within the EPRDF we have debated on the results. We will discuss ways on how to amend the current electoral system with the opposition.”
There were some reports that some members of the ruling party would have preferred to see members of the opposition having some seats in the parliament. One can imply the accuracy of such claims when Bereket said that members were debating on the results.
Viewed this way, it may be argued that the reform idea does not come out of the blue, and the protests pushed just the time frame a little bit. Still, a substantial number of commentators believe that the reform is not a genuine change of heart on behalf of the EPRDF. Rather, they say, it is the result of the mounting public pressure and the advices of the international community. In this case, one needs to be reminded that Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, in her recent visit, refused to make a speech in parliament for a reason linked with the 100% result. Would the reform change the course of things in the country is the crucial question at this time.
Weighing up the options
There are two major electoral systems and there are mixed or hybrid systems in between. One is the plurality or majority electoral system. The other is the proportional representation (PR) electoral system. The plurality or majority electoral system has a variety of sub-categories including FPTP, Alternative Vote and Party Block Vote. Similarly, the PR electoral system includes party list system and single transferable system. In mixed system as well, mixed member and parallel are the well-recognized sub-categories.
According to Gedion, the FPTP electoral system, which Ethiopia currently uses, is an electoral system in which the country is divided into electoral districts or constituencies that are equal in number with the number of seats available in the legislative house. Then from each constituency, one representative or member of the legislature is elected. The winner of the election in each constituency is the candidate who won the most votes in that constituency. The candidate does not have to win the majority of votes in that constituency. As long as she or he wins the most votes as compared with every other candidate in that constituency, that candidate will be considered the winner.
FPTP has its own advantages and disadvantages. FPTP often encourages the rise of two major political parties. FPTP is also desirable for accountability of Members of parliament (MP) since each voter would know who the MP that represents his electoral district is. This makes MPs more responsive to the needs of their constituency and its particular local issues that need to be brought before parliament. The connection may enhance accountability and responsiveness. Nevertheless, the FPTP electoral system notoriously leads to wastage of votes, thereby undermining the one-man-one-vote democratic principle.
In proportional representation (PR) electoral systems, it is possible to consider the whole country as one electoral district or to divide it into several large electoral districts that return multiple deputies or representatives to parliament, Gedion explains. In each electoral district or as the case may be for the entire country, parties will issue a list of candidates who are contesting for seats in the legislature on behalf or on the ticket of each party. Then voters cast their vote for the party of their choice and each party will be allocated seats in parliament that are proportional to the percentage of votes it has received nationally or in each electoral district.
PR electoral systems have two great merits. It reduces wastage of votes. It is better at correlating actual votes to seats. The other advantage of PR systems is the fact that it enables relatively small parties that might represent geographically dispersed minorities get seats in parliament. Therefore, many scholars advocate that it should be the electoral system of choice in countries that want minorities to have a fair and equitable representation in their legislative houses.
On the other hand, the major disadvantages of PR electoral system is its tendency to encourage fragmentation in the political landscape and the likelihood that it ends up in perpetually hung parliaments where no single party can command a majority. In countries with PR electoral systems, various small, extremist parties would easily secure seats in parliament and make both the formation of government and the process of governance a herculean feat. To mitigate this problem, there is a minimum threshold requirement a party must meet in order to enter in to parliament. In most PR systems for a party to secure a seat in parliament it needs to win at least five percent of the votes nationally.
The PR electoral system also blurs the correlation between members of parliament and constituencies, which makes it hard to claim credit or attribute failure, i.e. reward or punish a particular candidate or candidates.
Just the one for Ethiopia
For Gedion, due to the fact that they are very complicated and difficult to administer for electoral management bodies and quite confusing for voters, hybrid electoral systems are not advisable for a country like Ethiopia where both the voters and the electoral management body could be overwhelmed by the complexity of such electoral systems. “In a country like Ethiopia where a large segment of the population is illiterate, simplicity of an electoral system is a virtue to treasure,” he notes.
Some have pointed out that under better circumstances, the FPTP electoral system, best fits Ethiopian realities, in terms of accommodating diversity and ensuring a stable government. In FPTP, the formation of a stable and strong government capable of commanding a comfortable majority is the main merit. “The reason why FPTP creates stable and strong government is because in FPTP electoral systems, voters realize that if they vote for small, fringe parties their votes will be wasted. As a result, voters will be likely to cast their votes only to the two or three biggest parties in elections conducted with an FPTP electoral system. This in return encourages political parties to merge or form coalition or fronts before elections. That is exactly what happened during the 2005 Ethiopian national election. During that election, there were only three major contenders and that in my view was attributable to the FPTP electoral system,” Gedion emphasizes. Moreover, Gedion argues that this is desirable in a country like Ethiopia where our poverty and location in an unstable and hostile neighborhood makes a stable and strong government a necessity.
For some others, the FPTP electoral system is inherently exclusionary, regardless of sociopolitical and financial circumstances, and played a significant role on its own in ensuring the absolute dominance of the ruling party. Ethiopia should therefore adopt the PR electoral system. Wuobishet Mulat, a political commentator and a lawyer who published a book on self-determination, believes that the PR electoral system is the best solution for Ethiopia.
“In an ethnically divided society like Ethiopia, there is a real risk that PR will lead to the emergence of a plethora of small radical and extreme ethno-nationalist parties, which would barely be able to work with one another. This is why I am opposed to the adoption of PR for the election of members of the House of Peoples’ Representatives. PR will lead to the rise of a fractured, extremely polarized political party system and instable governments that will be often unable to secure majorities needed to form and lead governments. That is not a prospect I am thrilled about. In some European countries with PR systems, the average duration of governments was six months. In affluent countries with little ethnic diversity, that might be something they could live with, but in a country like Ethiopia, PR could be a recipe for disaster,” Gedion contends.
However, Gedion argued that it would be a good idea to consider the adoption of PR for election of members of the House of Federation which is supposed to be the house in which the various ethnic groups comprising Ethiopia are supposed to be represented. Although FDRE constitution gives the option of either directly electing HOF members or assigning them through the decision of the regional council, the latter has been the standard practice so far in Ethiopia.
The government claims that the 2015 general election saw a turnout of about 90 percent. According to NEBE, around 33 million people cast their votes. The same source puts the popular vote EPRDF collected is close to 95%. This means, the share of the many opposition political parties is just around 5%. If a minimum threshold is put in place, the result may not be different even under the PR electoral system.
For Adem Kassie (PhD), a well-published human rights lawyer based in the Netherlands, “Most importantly, while very little can be done to atone the disadvantages of single constituency FPTP electoral systems in Ethiopia, simple tweaks to the proportional electoral system can mitigate most of its harsh potential outcomes. For instance, the establishment of a reasonable minimum threshold can exclude the smallest and extremist parties or force them to compromise and form coalitions.”
A number of countries have combined plurality with proportional electoral systems. Adem suggests a similar approach to Ethiopia. The mixed system combines the advantages of both electoral systems, while mitigating their potential negative consequences. “Had such a mixed system been applied in the 2010 and 2015 Ethiopian elections, the ruling party would probably have obtained a majority, enabling a stable government, while ensuring significant representation for opposition groups,” Adem explains.
It is not the election system
When Mulugeta Aregawi, a lawyer and political commentator, was asked if he see some merits in the proposed electoral law reform by the Reporter, his response was “This is a luxurious question.” His reason is that Ethiopia need to conduct free and fair election first before debating on how to identify the winners in the elections.
On the basis of this argument, there are few commentators who hold that without many interrelated reforms, the electoral law reform alone would not change the current state of multi-party democracy in the country. Gedion Timothewos Hessebon (SJD), a constitutional lawyer at Addis Ababa University, School of Law, is one of them. Gedion contend that to blame FPTP for the virtual exclusion of the opposition from parliament is unjustified. “The culprit behind the dangerous absence of a meaningful parliamentary opposition in Ethiopia is not FPTP, it is rather the chronic deficit of political freedom. The fact that the opposition did not have adequate space and freedom to organize, solicit funds, support and membership as well as the very limited possibility that the opposition had to communicate its views to the public, call demonstrations and hold assemblies are why we are seeing the kind of result we had seen in 2015. The landslide victories have little to do with FPTP and much to do with the political environment which does not accommodate political dissents.”
Gedion asserts that minimal conditions required for the legitimacy of an election include freedom of expression and freedom of association. “The integrity, the legitimacy, and democratic quality of the election is contingent upon the freedom enjoyed prior to the election,” Gedion states.
To the contrary, one often hears and witnesses the right to peaceful demonstrations and assembly being restricted in Ethiopia. EPRDF is also accused of using mass-based organizations as instrument of enforcing its interests while suppressing civil society organizations. On top of that, the social control, through what is known as 1 le 5, has made it practically difficult for the opposition to compete, commentators contend. Moreover, the ruling party has a membership of millions of Ethiopians.
Moreover, the government and the ruling party are criticized for stifling on political freedoms of the people. In addition, independence of democratic institutions is questioned. Moreover, abuses by the incumbent or the ruling party are often reported. For instance, EPRDF is accused of abuse of incumbency or the illegitimate use of public resources or powers for primarily partisan ends. This also includes abuse of state controlled media and media regulatory organs, abuse of state administrative structures, subversion of electoral management bodies, and abuse of state coercive instruments & security services.
The opposition seems to have very little trust in the credibility and independence of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). Currently, there is a perception and a very strong conviction among the opposition that the NEBE is not really impartial. Some opposition parties go to the extent of accusing infiltrators of the ruling party for internal party strife they have experienced.
In this conundrum, the opposition as well partly shares the blames for their weaknesses. Their efforts of mobilizing the public and making their case to try to recruit as many members as possible are not that encouraging. The opposition groups are blamed of opposing the status quo without offering a viable policy option.
In the FPTP electoral system, only when you have a very organized presence and participation that you stand a better chance of winning. They were not successful in finding a common ground to rally the public support behind and compete with the ruling party. In the recent elections, the opposition parties were not able to field candidates and observers to all the polling stations for financial reasons.
The government has been saying all along that most political parties in this country cannot breathe on their own. EPRDF as well accuses main opposition parties of not respecting the constitution.
The government, on the other hand, contends that it has put in place all the mechanisms that ensure the electoral process is free and fair. The EPRDF is convinced that its policies are the ones which will most certainly transform the country. Its leaders believe that the public consider EPRDF as the only viable alternative to continue the development process that has been set in motion in this country. Although hard to swallow for many, the ruling party repeatedly claims that democracy, as is development, is an existential issue.
So, for some, without fixing these problems first, conducting the electoral reform would not bring the desired results. But for others, the reform is a long overdue assignment worthy of exploring its merits and demerits.
Another fundamental issue is the imposition of the same electoral system on Regional States with wildly different social, demographic, political and economic realities. “We must start a conversation on whether the Regional States should be allowed to determine their own electoral systems, subject to certain minimum conditions such as respect for the fundamental rights in the Federal Constitution, in particular the one-man-one-vote principle and the prohibition of discrimination,” Adem highlights.
Obviously the change in electoral system, Zemelak argues, to the extent that federal elections are concerned, requires constitutional amendment since Article 54(2) of the Constitution provides that members of the House of Peoples Representatives would be elected ‘by a plurality of the votes’. The use of plurality electoral system for regional and local elections is not a constitutional requirement. In any case, the Electoral law (Proclamation No. 532 (2007)) of the country provides the same electoral system, however with multimember constituencies, would be used for regional and local elections.
Federal and regional elections were held last year. “Hence we will have to wait till 2020 for the next national elections. On the other hand local elections will be held in two years’ time. I am of the view that the electoral system reform for local elections should be undertaken before the 2018 local elections. Doing so does not require constitutional amendment. Hence the reform can easily be introduced before the 2018 local election. Moreover the 2018 local elections will provide a good opportunity to test the workability of the intended electoral reform. Moreover it should serve as a good incentive to opposition parties to take part in local elections, which they have been shunning thus far,” explains Zemelak.
Interestingly, the electoral law reform, when it comes to fruition, means the first constitutional reform for the country. Of course, the FDRE Constitution under Article 105 outlines detailed procedures to amend the Constitution. However, EPRDF has gradually developed an attitude that views proposals on constitutional amendment as an attempt to overthrow the constitutional order. Partly, this extremist view which almost considers the Constitution as a sacred document is a response to the position of the opposition and its critics that call for a new constitution or substantive revision for reasons of lack of original legitimacy. So, scholars express the fear of the ruling party as a mechanism of denying the opening of “Pandora box for constitutional amendment.”
For Getachew Assefa (PhD), constitutional law expert and associate professor at the Addis Ababa University School of Law, even if the durability mainly makes constitutions different from ordinary laws, they still need to be responsive and accommodative of the changed circumstances. The South African Constitution which came into force in 1995, one year later after the FDRE Constitution, has been amended 17 times. “Constitutional amendment is a natural and healthy constitutional practice. The longest-serving constitutions would not have stayed relevant without amendment. In this context, the latest electoral reform proposal in Ethiopia is a measure that opens a new door for constitutional amendment. Similarly, amending other provisions which requires reforms would only make the Constitution more legitimate and responsive. It needs to accommodate changes that the reality demands,” Getachew explains.