Significance of party dialogue
Mushe Semu is the former president of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), one of the parties that made up the then Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), which took part in the historic 2005 elections. A banker by profession, Mushe is and had been an active member of the political discourse in Ethiopia for many years. Currently, he is retired from any kind of party politics and speaks in his personal capacity. At the moment he is a branch manager at one of the private banks in Ethiopia. This week, Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter tracked down Mushe and sat with him to discuss the ongoing negotiations between the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and 15 opposition political parties with particular focus on the reform of the legal framework of the electoral system in Ethiopia. Excerpts:
The Reporter: As you know the EPRDF and opposition parties have been haggling over various issues for the past several months. In recent weeks, they have agreed to revise some legal procedures and provisions in the country’s electoral system. How do you assess this ongoing negotiation between the two sides?
Mushe Semu: In its essence, the ongoing negotiations between the opposition political parties and the ruling party do not have a proper representation in terms of addressing the political problems haunting the nation at this time. It is also not clear or I don’t have the information on how these opposition parties are selected to negotiate with the ruling party. I also don’t believe that these are the only parties that are concerned about the political landscape and the electoral system of the country. First of all, these issues require some proficiency in the subject matter. Second, it should also incorporate participants other than political parties such as different individuals who have had a stake in the political activity of the nation previously.
Lacking such actors in the process makes the negotiations deficient. From the outset, we heard that so many agenda topics were proposed to be tabled for discussion. However, in the course of the negotiations, it narrowed down to focusing only on electoral reforms. The negotiations came as a result of the recent political unrest and protest staged in different parts of the country. One of the questions raised in these protests was that of the question of representation. The question were raised because political parties started to drift away from elections, the private media was increasingly excluded from the political landscape and the society in one way or another lack proper stage to vent its frustration and anger.
Therefore, when we are talking about the ongoing negotiations we have to take into consideration what criteria were used to choose the parties which are taking part in the negotiations. To what extent do they represent the society at large? Because negotiations always depend on the capacity of the negotiator; it can’t be conducted by mere interest to negotiate. Who are these political parties and who are they representing? Do they have enough attention of the public or have legitimacy? If the ruling party refutes their proposal, do they have the proper mechanism to force the ruling party to reconsider their proposals? Hence, without the confidence of the public, such negotiations would not produce any tangible result. I believe the political parties lack the capacity to negotiate; therefore they don’t have any other choice but to accept what the ruling party has proposed.
But the parties that are taking part in the ongoing negotiations argue that they represent citizens of the country and based on their negotiations some of laws related to election and the electoral system are to be changed. In that regard some say that they are benefiting all the parties and the public at large. What drove you to make that analysis?
Every negotiation has value. Politics should be guided by dialogue, negotiations and positive outcomes form such engagements. Therefore, in this regard, the negotiation should have been conducted in bilateral settings. Two groups with unequal power and capacity negotiating over the fate of the country is undemocratic. The outcome can’t be expected to reflect the will of the majority. That is why the public sidelined the opposition parties and bring in its own issues to the streets.
When we look at the ongoing negotiations, one of the outcomes is the shift from the existing electoral system into a hybrid one. But, have the parties considered all the possible electoral systems that will workout for Ethiopia in this regard? And do they examine and analyze all the sides of the other electoral systems? These are all questions that need to be answered. At this point, what is important is the proportion (balance) of the hybrid system, not the nature. But, the debate was about the percentage. However, it was not asked why this system was chosen over others.
Do you think reforming the electoral system will address the core questions of the protests and unrests?
I personally believe that the problem with Ethiopia’s electoral system is not representation; it is rather lack of conducting free, fair and transparent elections. Therefore, establishing a strong institution that can conduct and handle free, fair and transparent elections should be the priority. In the absence of such vibrant institution, changing the electoral system after the whole world mocked the one hundred percent election result of the country and protests broke out in different parts of the country, I don’t think the reform will address the question properly. Initially, we have to ask ourselves whether we are able to conduct free, fair and transparent elections. Is the institution that is mandated to conduct the elections credible? This should be addressed since opposition parties are skeptical about the partiality of the institution. Without addressing the credibility of the institution, simply giving the oppositions some seats in the parliament doesn’t improve representation or help the lawmaker reflect the will of the public.
The said reform should come only after establishing a free, fair and independent electoral board. Then and only then can we talk about electoral reforms. The board is working on how to get rid of the criticisms both locally and internationally, tactfully. Its impartiality is still in question. Much has been said about the elections that have been conducted by the board so far; especially whether they are free, fair and independent. Apart from this, the utilization of the media by the parties is also lacking in impartiality. Therefore, without solving all these intricate questions, giving some seats to the opposition in the parliament doesn’t address the root cause of the problem and the questions of the public.
The public did not protest about limited seats in the parliament. The demand is free, fair and transparent elections. In my view, the opposition parties who have agreed on the proposed arrangements are parties that believed there is free, fair and transparent election in Ethiopia. This is, therefore, tantamount to saying ‘ok we have failed to win in a free and fair election so let the government arrange for us some sort of representation in the parliament’.
So what is expected from the opposition political parties to overcome such issues?
First of all, when we talk about opposition political parties of the country there is a huge difference between the parties of the past and parties of today. This is one of the biggest things. Parties in the past were highly accepted by the public and were a formidable force. Negotiations are about bargaining power and maintaining that balance of power. You cannot negotiate easily with the party that has a monopoly of the resources in the country. Therefore, in my view, before joining such negotiations parties should ask themselves what kind of representation they have from the public to participate in such engagements? They should also consider their capability. In this regard, we will end up questioning whether the oppositions have the capacity to negotiate or not? Are they really opposition parties in the first place? Did they do their homework before joining the negotiation? How many supporters do they have? Are they representing the public? This electoral system became a reality not through the representation of political parties but via direct participation of the public. So, how come these parties get to sit with the ruling party to revisit these issues?
The public knows their capacity and the pressure that the ruling party is exerting on them? If the ruling party wanted this revision it can do it on its own; since it controls the major ruling councils in Ethiopia. Some of the parties have never conducted a general assembly. God knows about their members; some of the parties are just called from their homes and some of them are just individuals. Therefore, you have to think and ask yourself do I really have the right and the responsibility to do so.
Much of the parties which are partaking in the ongoing negotiations lack elections of proper leadership, fail to audit their accounts and have failed to conduct their own general assembly meetings based on their own timetable. According to the electoral law of the country, they should be dissolved let alone siting to negotiate with the ruling party to determine the fate of the country. Conducting negotiations having these parties on the list will raise questions on both the ruling and the so-called opposition political parties. Therefore, if the parties want to bring real change in the country, they have to struggle to change the format, the content and the structure of the ongoing negotiations.
The negotiations as you have mentioned earlier came as a result of protests and unrests in different parts of the country. In this regard, both President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) and Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn promised to reform of the political landscape a year ago which involves reforming the existing legal framework governing the election and the electoral system itself. However, both the protests and the unrests are not yet over. So what is the solution for these problems?
For me, the solution is so simple. First of all, free and independent electoral board should be established. Following the establishment of such an institution, an election will be conducted and based on the result the party that wins the election will take power and work to address the issues. Right now, there are doubts the ruling party did not won the election genuinely, the opposition parties has raised this question in different ways. The question was also present on the free and independent media outlets. Now, the public itself became a player since they are all gone. The problem is more intricate because the protest doesn’t have a leader and a direction. The protest is the result of anger, frustration and hopelessness.
Therefore, for me, conducting free, fair, and transparent election will be the key for all the protests and problems in the country. Currently, the majority of the opposition parties are representing their personal interests rather than the questions of the public. The issues in the negotiations are mainly focusing on political finance, access to media, election reform and about the electoral board (though these are partially the question of the public) other questions that forced the public to stage protests are not being raised and addressed. To do so, you are expected to have direct participation; and if you do so the aforementioned problems will be solved.