Fighting for breathing room
Following a lengthy and tiresome discussion to set the agenda, the ruling party EPRDF and some 16 opposition parties has started the formal session of so called political parties’ negotiation forum few weeks ago. And first up on the agenda was reforming the Revised Political Parties’ Registration Proclamation No. 573/2008. The agreed up on amendments, however, are criticized for placing stringent barrier to enter into the Ethiopian political system, Writes Neamin Ashenafi.
The 1990s will always be remembered as a period of significant political transformation for Africa. The period ushered in the end of authoritarian/non-democratic regimes in many countries across the continent including Ethiopia and marked the beginning of a new sociopolitical era.
This sudden wave of new democracies in the continent gave rise to new political actors and different types of party systems with their own characteristics and consequences.
In May 1991, after the demise of the military dictatorship which was said to be undemocratic, multiparty democracy, as a dominate system of political life, was declared in Ethiopia by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). But, none of the political actors at the time were fully aware as to what that will entail in the months and years to come.
Well, apparently, it was the proliferation of numerous political groups and organized voices.
Some records put the number of recognized and registered parties close to 100. Fronts, Coalitions, Unities, liberators...and so many other forms of political organization become rampant in the newly constituting Ethiopia. Suddenly, every ethnic group, nation and nationality had one or two representing political organizations; or at least claiming to be representatives of these groups. That was not all; the Ethiopian political space was rife with political organizations with nationalist persuasion.
This is the time when opposition politics started to take shape in the country. With explosion of political parties came a challenging task of standing out from the bunch. In fact, the rate of proliferation was so unprecedented that let alone their political programs even the names of many of the newly emerging parties was not well known to the wider Ethiopian public.
Eventually, after mild consolidation and refocusing to respective regional or federal politics, the Ethiopian opposition politics began to take its form. With that, few distinct names and faces emerged from the opposition camp, and the public started to get a handle on who is who, and what.
However, this brought on another challenge to parties—the need to offer a coherent political ideology and program. Either because of their ethnic ideology or for any other reason, the opposition political parties has been severely criticized for lack of developing credible alternative political programs and clear ideological orientation. As can be expected the ruling EPRDF milked this angle—no clear political alternative and program—for so many years and it cost the opposition camp dearly over the years.
But, this tag of wars between the opposition and the ruling party continued for years with the opposition blaming the government and the ruling party for narrowing down the political space curtailing them from performing all their day-to-day activities and penetrate the wider public. To the contrary, the government criticized the opposition back for their failure in providing proper and credible alternatives to the public there by detracting the evolution of a working multiparty democratic system in Ethiopia.
Regardless of the blaming and counter blaming going on between the ruling party and the opposition camp, one thing that is for sure is political representation as a function of securing seats in the nation’s lawmaker has go down significantly over the years. This marked decline was particularly visible after the most contested national election of 2005 where some of the major opposition parties eventually decided to forfeit on the parliamentary seats they have won fair and square. Even with those who were willing to take their seats, the opposition enjoyed the biggest parliamentary presence yet in the recent Ethiopian history.
From 2005 on, it was a journey down the hill for the opposition and diversity of views in the country’s lawmaker. The election which was held five years later declared only one opposition candidate and one independent victorious and to have seats in the House. The ruling party was adamant that such was a healthy trend and that the nation is on its way to becoming dominant party democracy, like the ones in Japan or Sweden.
Nevertheless, the ruling party never claimed that it has given up on the multiparty alternative; nor has it admitted to the fact that the dominant party system in the making is its preference. Rather it blamed the opposition for failure to offer a viable political alternative to the public, and forcing its hand to govern in a dominant party system. Nevertheless, the party was confident that it could make it work; perhaps until a later time when viable political entities would enter the political space.
The opposition on their part argued that instituting a dominant party system has always been the grand design that the ruling EPRDF has been working to achieve. This pretty much sums up the major political debates of the last decade.
And then comes another dynamics; the deadly political unrest that swept across the Oromia and Amhara Regional States in 2016. The unrest resulted in the loss of life and destruction of private and public property, and subsided only after the declaration of the State of Emergency in October of that year. Surely, this was the longest and most damaging political unrest that the ruling party faced since it took power two and half decades ago.
Fittingly, it induced the party to go back to the drawing board and find immediate solution to the problem. Sure enough, the realization of the problem forced the ruling party to revisit its long held belief that as long as it is democratically elected, the lack of proper representation in the House should not be a concern to it. Further, it admitted that although it is no fault of its own that there is no opposition occupying seat in the parliament, the party still carries the responsibility to see to it that multiparty participation is ensured in the House.
In the back drop of that, the government expressed its commitment to reform some legislations, electoral laws and pertinent proclamations to make sure that more opposition voices are incorporated in the nation’s law making body. In this regard, both Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn and president of the republic, MulatuTeshome (PhD), announced their government’s unwavering commitment to such reforms and that revitalizing electoral laws and proclamations are top priorities. And this is to be done in consultation with opposition groups through a grand opposition-ruling (parties) negotiation forum.
Following up on the promises, some 23 political parties and the ruling party started the pre-negotiation discussion to set the agenda for the negotiation. Since Blue Party (Blue), the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (Medrek) and others have decided to walk out of the negotiation early on due to differences in the agenda setting process and the issue of assign an independent mediator, which was rejected by the EPRDF, the number of parties which has taken a seat at the final negotiation tabled has dwindled to 17.
After the withdrawal of some of the parties the remaining group continued with the pre-negotiation process and managed to agree on some 12 issues to deliberate on. Regarding the issue of independent negotiator, the remaining parties agreed that the parties themselves would chair the negotiation taking rounds.
Following this, lengthy and tiresome discussion to set the agenda, the ruling EPRDF and the remaining opposition parties started the formal negotiations rounds few weeks ago. And first up on the agenda was reforming the Revised Political Parties’ Registration Proclamation No. 573/2008. The parties have covered the 63 articles of the existing proclamation, and agreed to incorporate new articles and sub-articles and also to amend some.
Among the new articles to be incorporated is the one that raises to 3,000 (from the current 1,500) the minimum number of founding members of a countrywide political party.
Apart from that, they have also agreed that for a party to be considered a countrywide political party, it should maintain offices in at least four regional states and two city administrations. Similarly, the parties agreed on placing requirements on the registration of regional parties as well. In this regard, a regional party should have regional programs and offices in at least 25 percent of the zones, woredas and cities it was established.
Other issues were discussed and agreed by the parties, though the parties concluded their first round of negotiations and agreed to conduct the second one in the first week of the September, many commentators and members of the opposition parties has expressed their concern over the result of the first negotiation; that is the changes made to the Proclamation No. 573/2008.
Thus far, there is a mixed take on the outcome of the negotiation. For one, there are a number of people who argue that the outcome is not a victory for political parties in the country since the issues agreed upon by the parties are not relevant compared to the problems occurred in the country.
In nutshell, the amendment made to the Revised Political Parties’ Registration Proclamation No. 573/2008 amounts to fortifying entry to the Ethiopian political system, commentators say. Doubling the minimum number of founding members and requiring functional office facilities in at least four regions and two city administrations would considerably raise the initial cost, they assert, and that it could have a deterrent effect.
Chairman of Blue Party, Yeshiwas Assefa, is of the view that the first real outcome of the negotiation has done nothing but reinforce his party’s earlier concern regarding the overall structure of the negotiation platform. Yeshiwas maintains that, there is no concrete argument that justifies the ratifying a proclamation to block potential new entrant to the political field. In fact, he is convinced that the amendment would undermine the growth of the process of democratization and multiparty political system in the country.
“We have to question the purpose of the negotiation, what was the agenda that we wanted to address? The agenda as promised by both the president and the PM was to reform many of the legislations mainly associated with elections and some that are creating hindrance on political participation,” he told The Reporter. And, the agreed up on amendments would totally undo these principles, he argued.
The fact of the matter is that Ethiopia’s experimentation with democracy has always been controversial. The number of political parties and the diversity of ideas coming to the idea marketplace is one aspect of this controversy. Some scholars are of the view that given sixty something political parties function in the country, it is absolutely imperative that the nation undergo some sort of consolidation and bring down competing political parties to smaller more manageable level.
Drawing on the experience of matured democracies and the role of handful of primary political parties guiding the political establishment, some aspire limiting the number of political parties and the alternatives they bring to the table. In fact, there are still some who blame over diversification of political forces in the opposition camp for dividing votes and loosing election. Tightening entry conditions is one way of consolidating the small and fragmented political parties in Ethiopia, according to them.
On other side, limiting entry has far more dire consequences in the form of maintaining the perceived monopoly of some of oldest parties in the political life of the nation, some scholar opine. The voice of the younger generation is yet to appear in the political platform in Ethiopia and tightening entry condition is nothing but keeping away this new voice.
In a broader context, the existence of several competing political parties is generally, although not always, accepted as crucial characteristics of a democratic regime. In fact, the debate is no longer whether there should be parties but whether the party system should be pluralist or not.
Traditionally, three types of party systems are distinguished in the literature; a two party system, a two and half party system and multi party systems. However, African democracies these days are increasingly drawn to a fourth type of system—dominant party system where one dominant party controls the majority of the seats in the parliament.
The debate in the literature has given attention to the merits of the flaws of multiparty and dominant party systems, and tries to tackle the question of which type of system is the best ways to promote, sustain and insure democracy.
Admirers of the dominant party system argue that the government’s effectiveness is higher in such a system than in a multiparty system. A dominant party system is generally associated with a single party government. As the political power is concentrated in the hands of a narrow majority, unified decisive leadership and hence coherent policies and fast decision-making can be promoted. The members of the government can pass legislation and make policy that they like and think is necessary during the term of office, as long as they have support in the parliament.
Proponents of multi party systems argue that such systems are better at representing. It is argued that multi party systems are more “fair” in that minority parties have chance to be represented in the parliament. Another important argument in favor of multi party systems is that they promote political participation especially during elections. In multi party systems, the number of parties and therefore the choice available among the electorate is obviously bigger. As a result, voters in general and minority party supporters in particular can feel that they have a realistic hope of electing a candidate of their choice.
To the contrary, Mulugeta Abebe, president of All Ethiopian Union Party (AEUP), argued that the issue raised on the amended proclamation from the perspective of blocking new entrants is not acceptable.
“Is having some 60 political parties a guarantee for democracy?” he asks. What we have here in Ethiopia is the right to establish political parties not to perform political activities, therefore what we are saying is that we don’t have a problem to establish a political party, but we have to point out the issues, which hindered us from performing our political activities. There are parties where nobody enters to their offices but some flies. This law is not going to control only the new entrants it also examines the performance of the existing parties too.
The major reason to increase the number is to check the number of the members of the existing parties. It should be evaluated whether the party has 3000 members or not, is it joking or engaging properly. Are the parties aiming to join the struggle able to mobilize this much number of members or not this should also be take into consideration when we are talking about the issue of limiting founding members.
We believe this is an evaluation of the real cause and purpose of the establishment of the parties because there are a lot of parties that the ruling party established both as nationwide and regional party. We believe that the limit on the number to enter into politics will solve such kind of problems and that’s why we agreed to amend the proclamation, Mulugeta argues firmly.
Contrary to Mulugeta’s argument political researchers are now indicating the declining trend of party membership in the global political organizations.
Rather than examining the political base of parties, followers tend to cast their votes based of ideological and political programs of a given party.
The emergence of social media has opened an opportunity to the elites simply form political organizations and broaden their base by promoting their ideology and programs.
The Ethiopian trend is not far from this global reality, commentators say.
According to commentators, let alone new entrants, opposition parties currently taking part in Ethiopian political system doesn’t have 3000 followers. Obstacles to stage peaceful demonstrations, obtain conference rooms to undertake political assemblies, other type of intimidations are some of the challenges opposition parties are daily facing in Ethiopia.
Let alone opening more than five offices, getting access to hotel conference rooms is a challenging task for an opposition party, a political researcher who want to be anonymous argued.
According to him, when there is political tension in the country the ruling party usually picks the political party registration card. Following the 2005 election the ruling EPRDF has tightened grip on the formation of political parties. Since then it has introduced some moderate transformations that, under normal circumstance, will help it to continue as a dominant party, he contends.
“before the 2005 Election, the EPRDF was a ‘cadre’ type political party, in which party members were secretly recruited based on strict political and ideological grounds. After, the 2005 election, however, EPRDF transformed itself in to ‘mass party’ in which membership has become open to everyone,” he said.
The number of EPRDF members that was close to two million has dramatically jumped to 6.16 million members in 2013; he said referring official data’s. Furthermore, the party has introduced EPRDF women and youth league, which are instrumental in mobilizing support. Currently, there are 1,600,000 EPRDF Women League and 1,250,445 EPRDF-Youth League members, according to same sources.
The ruling party has also been training top and middle level leaders of the government (not the party) on policy matters. For example, as of 2013, 28,823 mid-level and 2,118 high rank leaders were trained on matters of development and good governance, the sources said.
The aggregate of all these shows a patron-client network that is also a systemic exclusion of all political opponents he argued, adding a characteristic of a de facto one party state.