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Local elections – should the public expect anything different?  

Local elections – should the public expect anything different?  

Ethiopia is to hold a local election in few months’ time. The next local elections will also include elections for the council seats of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa city administrations. However, this round is like none other. It comes after the landslide electoral win by the EPRDF in May 2015. And that was immediately followed by deadly protests. In a bid to alleviate the tensions in the country, one remedy that was proposed by the ruling party is reforms on the electoral system and political space, which still has a long way to go, writes Solomon Goshu.   

The government has taken various measures to ensure that the country is pulled out of the political crisis and instability it has been immersed in since 2015. However, the problems seem to continue in different forms. It is extremely difficult to say for certain that measures like the ‘deep reform’ government and party evaluations, the state of emergency proclamation, administrative measures, and anti-corruption campaigns have regained the country’s stability.

The best recent example for this is bloody conflict between Oromia and Somali regional states. The two regions’ latest conflict happened some two weeks ago. The latest outbreak of violence has killed at least 50 people and displaced more than 50,000, according to Reuters. But the cause is not yet clear, since both sides are blaming each other. Officials in Oromia have blamed raids by a paramilitary force from the Somali region, known as the Liyu (special) police, as a major cause of the violence. But the Somali regional government has rejected that claim and accused the government in Oromia of sympathizing with the Oromo Liberation Front, a group seeking self-determination for Oromos, which is a banned terrorist organization in Ethiopia.

The border of Oromos and Somalis has been a flashpoint for conflicts over grazing land and natural resources in the past. In fact, the two regions were in conflict while the state of emergency was in force. The Ethiopian government imposed a repressive state of emergency in October 2016 that lasted for 10 months and was only lifted in August as the clashes subsided.

However, the incident seems to ignite the fear and concerns of the international community which the lifting of the state of emergency aimed to avoid. As a result, on September 19, 2017, the US Embassy in Addis Ababa issued a statement saying it was “disturbed by the troubling reports” on “ethnic violence and the large-scale displacement of people” along the border between the country’s two largest regions, Oromia and Somali.

For some, the Ethiopian political landscape is facing one of its toughest challenges to date and the immediate and long overdue factors inspired the demonstrations. According to commentators, the protesters took to the streets because of political and economic marginalization, abuses of human rights, deficits on political freedom and democracy, expansion of corruption, the extremely weak status of media and freedom of expression 

After the start of these massive opposition and protest, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling party for the last 26 years, is talking about reforming its governance approach both at the party and government level, even though some still doubt the genuineness of the process.

Commentators and experts that The Reporter talked to list areas they believe the government should conduct reform.

In particular, reforming the federal system seems to be the agenda of many in the country. For some, the recent instability is a sign that the federal system is not working well. According to many commentators, the tensions and the conflicts that arose over the years, including the recent clashes, show the failure of EPRDF’s ethnic federalism.

Indeed, group conflicts, be it ethnic-based or not, are not new to the Ethiopian political scene.

In addition, many argue that the federal government undue influence on regions’ internal affairs has been clearly visible in the last 26 years. For some political analysts, in the Oromo and Amhara protests, the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) and Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) have expressed their differences to the EPRDF when they assert their independence. 

For EPRDF, at least theoretically speaking, the survival of the country has always depended on accommodating the quests of the public on three highly related areas: peace, democracy, and development. In the first decade or so of its rule high emphasis was given to peace. However, after its effort to transition to democracy has gone in unexpected direction in the 2005 election, the emphasis and source of legitimacy is mainly on development now. Yet, the continuous conflicts seem to gradually push the front back to square one.

However, reforming the federal form of governance is highly unlikely to happen considering how ruling party values it. The EPRDF is proud of itself for recognizing the hitherto neglected rights of nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia.

Many political commentators point out that the result of the 2015 general election has contributed to the consequent unrest and instability in the country as well. Results from the 5th general elections saw the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) on course to a sweeping victory for seats in parliament and regional councils. In a democratic system, this is an extreme rarity.

Needless to say, after 2010, the fact that the Ethiopian multiparty system has entered into an almost non-existent stage is no more a contested matter. The results of the last two national elections showing only one opposition figure in the House of People’s Representatives is a testimony to this consensus. Allegedly, this led many commentators to claim that the country has taken one step back and literally become a single-party state again.

EPRDF always claims that it has stayed in power after it has been repeatedly able to gain the confidence and trust of the Ethiopian people, who have endorsed its clear program and development strategy.

However, Assefa Fisseha (PhD), associate professor and chairman of the Centre for Federal Studies, Addis Ababa University, believes that the recent political crisis is aggravated by the dominant party system. “This by itself may not be a problem so long as it is the result of a democratic political process. A protest of this magnitude that we have had in 2015 and 2016 after a 100 percent electoral victory by the ruling party is a very rare phenomenon. The dominant party may have done a lot of miracles in terms of economic development, grassroots mobilization, and peace and security. But along the lines we may have had marginalized the loyal political opposition. This means that any discontented section of society has no real way of expressing its discontent either in the legislature or in the media or through other ways of staging peaceful protest. I think it is time for opening up the political space to the political opposition which is determined to bring about political change through a peaceful and democratic electoral process,” he explained.

For many, Ethiopia has become a full-fledged authoritarian state after 2005. And, the slightly modified ideology and growth model of the ruling party and the government, the democratic developmental state, has strengthened the party’s long-held view that the opposition in Ethiopia is working against the basic interests of the public and the establishment.

In the last rounds of protest in Oromia region, the protesters have demanded certain measures by the government in a peaceful manner. One of the demands deals with the release of Merera Gudina (PhD), chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress, and Bekele Gerba, another leader of the same party, from prison. While OPDO has accepted this demand as a proper question, it says that the decision is in the hands of the federal government.

The question was more vocal in the Ambo area which is the constituency and support base for Merera. It is because of the support of the Ambo area people that Merera managed to win parliament seats. He was a Member of Parliament between 2005 and 2010.

Mulatu Gemechu, head of Public Relations with the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum a.k.a. Medrek, says that considering its top leadership being behind bars and with the exception of the head office at Addis Ababa all the other branch offices of the party being closed down by government forces it is highly unlikely that they would participate.

Prominent politicians like Merera prefer to run for parliament as opposed to run to govern their constituencies by competing in local elections. Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele (PhD), an Associate Professor at the Centre for Federal Studies, Addis Ababa University, and Extraordinary Associate Professor at Dullah Omar Institute, University of the Western Cape, is a constitutional lawyer specializing on local governments in Ethiopia. For Zemelak, recognizing local government as a level of government is a recent development. In fact, the Ethiopian Constitution does not expressly recognize local government as a level of government. However, it is not totally silent on the issue. It implies the establishment of local government on its Article 39 which recognizes the right to self-government of ethnic communities and Article 50 (4) which requires the state to establish sub-regional level of government. Local government is basically left to be the competence of the regional states. The Constitution does not envisage the federal government to have a direct say on the establishment of local government.

It is interesting to note that the last five local elections took place basically without the participation of the opposition. For instance, in the last local election, the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) only fielded one candidate. “We participated with one candidate, in order to avoid our party registration being cancelled by the Electoral Board,” Mushe Semu, the then president of the EDP, said.

Ethiopia is to hold a local election in few months’ time. “There is nothing new that makes one think the next local elections will be any different from the previous ones. The institutional frameworks governing local elections are skewed in favor of the ruling party and it is not possible to expect a different outcome in local elections if this continues to be the case,” he said.

When it comes to local elections, EPRDF is expected to win, with its candidates unopposed in many places.

Chanie Kebede (PhD), President of Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), said that EDP’s decision on local elections will depend on the outcomes of the negotiation. However, he admits that because of the legal barrier and limited capacity of the party, if the party decides to participate, it is not with the aim of winning but for the sake of mere participation.

Blue Party Vice President Getaneh Balcha told The Reporter that due to the government interferences the party is highly unlikely to participate on the upcoming local elections. “Let alone to compete in elections freely, we are not even allowed to hold press conferences,” he said.

Generally, the opposition lack interest in even to participate in local elections. Political, economic, and legal justifications are provided for this pervasive lack of interest in the lowest level of administration. “The realisation that they have no chance of winning in local elections in itself is a disincentive for the opposition to participate in local elections,” he says.

According to Zemelak, local elections in our country are held quietly and without much drama. “It is now less than a year before the next local elections are held. But there is no even a single report from the media. This shows the low esteem with which local government and local democracy is held in this country of ours,” he states.

For Zemelak, the opposition parties, especially those that are known as national opposition parties have the mind-set that the centre is everything and controlling it automatically leads to controlling the periphery, and deem a good strategy to focus on the centre. “The institutional and political challenges that they raise during national and local elections are more or less the same which include unfavourable legal framework and political repression.  Yet, these did not stop them from taking part in national elections. They, however, readily boycott local elections,” he said.

Of course, there is a financial side to this lack of interest too. Out of the five elections it controls, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia only allots campaign budgets for political parties during national and regional elections. Most of the opposition parties blamed the lack of funding for not nominating more candidates and mobilising massive campaigns.

Some experts advise that to be able to compete with a highly dominant incumbent like the EPRDF, the opposition has to start from local level and build on it step by step before aiming to the federal government. Zemelak is one of those who argue that opposition parties should focus on subnational governments and create a strong political foundation at local and regional levels before vying for the federal government. “From exclusively electoral point of view, and putting aside other factors, I would say EPRDF is in control of the federal government because it is in control of local councils, not the way round,” he said. 

For Zemelak, being in control of certain local government units would allow opposition parties to test their policies, gain experiences of governance, and avoid what they often claim are hindrances for their electoral successes i.e. repressive local officials who prevent them from having direct contact with the public. “This indeed presupposes institutional and political environment that allow the opposition to contest in local elections with a reasonable expectation that they can win,” he added.

According to the NEBE, in the 2013 local elections, a total of 29 parties have registered for this election, but five failed to present their candidates. The bulk of the 3.6 million candidates registered for the local elections falls to the EPRDF, the incumbent, according to the NEBE. Close to 35,000 candidates were registered to run for Wereda, district and city administration councils of Addis Ababa. Opposition parties did not present candidates for the Wereda and district councils of Addis Ababa.

In reaction to the widespread opposition and protest against the ruling party and the government, which occurred a few months after the landslide electoral win by the EPRDF in May 2015, the EPRDF has promised to make some reforms on the electoral system and political space. Moreover, as opposed to its previous pronouncements, the ruling party, both formally and informally, has immediately started to speak about the positive roles of opposition political parties considering the diversity of the country. When it finally made official that the current electoral system, the first-past-the-post electoral system, which has a constitutional backing, is going to be amended to include the proportional representation electoral system which would ensure the better representation of opposition parties, many expected overwhelming reform from the ruling party.

Consequently, EPRDF has invited all nationwide opposition parties for discussions and negotiations. According to Beyene Petros (Prof.), the long-standing opposition figure and the then chair of Medrek, if it were not for the current political crisis, the opposition would never have got the chance to have a discussion and a debate let alone to negotiate. To the dislike of EPRDF’s representatives, this sentiment was shared by other opposition parties’ representatives.

Among other things, the parties agreed to use the forum to ensure the transfer of power in peaceful and legal manners only through election; to amend laws that needs amending and correct their enforcement taking the different ideas gathered from the forum as inputs; to create an enabling environment where the public makes an informed decision by accessing the alternative ideas of the opposition; to contribute for the creation of national consensus in the country; and; to give solutions to the problems identified as hindrances to the political space and the multiparty system in the country.

Again, the ruling party demonstrated a total change of heart in its agreement to revisit the existing laws particularly those laws related with the civil and political rights of citizens.

Since then, in many rounds of discussions between the ruling party and the 21 nationwide parties, the modalities of the discussions and negotiations were set before delving into substantive negotiations in recent times. So far, they only dealt with the Political Parties Registration Proclamation.

The negotiating parties’ next agenda is the Revised Election Proclamation which they have started discussing it since last Thursday.

For Zemelak, the entire focus of the parties’ negotiation seems to be on national elections. “As far as I know, local government and local elections are not in the agenda of the negotiations. In any case, the negotiations and reforms seem to be undertaken with the 2020 general elections in mind and I think there is no sufficient time to test the reforms in the upcoming local elections,” he noted. 

The Ethiopian opposition support base is considered to be at the lowest level in recent years. But the number of candidates they need to field to take part in local elections exceeds three million. This is part of the post-2005 election legal reforms initiated by EPRDF. The reform increased the number of local council seats, at kebele, wereda, city, and zone level, from 600,000 to 3.6 million. It was introduced in 2008. ‘Enhancing the people’s political representation and participation’ was the justification that the ruling party proffered for this change. However, it is clear that the reform has the effect of – if it was not the intention of the ruling party to do so – making virtually impossible for opposition parties to win in local elections since only the ruling party has the organisational and financial capacity to mobilize three million candidates.

It is worth pointing out here that there has been considerable debate around the increased number of candidates for local council seats after the controversial 2005 general election.

“I am of the view that this needs to be reformed not merely to make it possible for opposition parties to win some local council, but to create a healthy environment for local democracy,” Zemelak explained.

Local government and local authorities have been used and treated for long as instruments of control, as opposed to democratic institutions, by those in charge of the centre. “The federal and regional governments should recognize that local government is envisioned to be a level of government in its own right, not an administrative agent of the two levels of government. The federal government should hence introduce a constitutional reform to the effect that local government is explicitly recognised – there is already an implicit recognition – as an autonomous level of government,” he states.

Similarly, Zemelak advises regional governments to introduce reforms in their constitutions to clearly define local governments functions and to provide them with adequate source of revenue. “A critical reform in this regard is making mandatory block grants that regional governments transfer to weredas and, to some extent, cities. Moreover, block grants that the regions transfer to weredas, and which cover over 70 percent of their expenditures, are simply ‘grants’ as opposed to ‘entitlements’ for the weredas. Defining the competences of local government is critical for local democracy,” he contends.

Some lay the blame on the first-past-the-post electoral system and call for constitutional amendment to proportional election system or a hybrid system. 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.”

In his last year’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.  Interestingly, the electoral law reform, when it comes to fruition, means the first constitutional reform for the country.

However, Zemelak argues that 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. 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,” he said.

Similarly, Adem Kassie (LLD), a human rights and constitutional law scholar questions the importance of 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,” he said.

Of course, legal reforms would not ensure that the opposition perform better. They need to work on their internal problems as well. EPRDF is not alone when it comes to sharing blames for the state of affairs of opposition political parties. In part, the opposition and the public are also responsible for the failure of the opposition from playing meaningful roles in the recent political life of the country. The great majority of the opposition parties are accused of, among other things, being extremely weak, ethnically fragmented, their political elites obsessed with self-respect, incapable of creating strong constituencies and offering alternative viable policies, and suspicious and competitive of each other. 

The next local elections will also include elections for the council seats of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa city administrations. Prior to the post-2005 controversy surrounding the capital, these elections were part of the general election. Mushe claims that the two cities were categorised under local elections, because the EPRDF wanted to make sure that the opposition would not get the required funding if the two were categorised as national election areas. The two federal cities stopped being part of the national elections after the disputed 2005 elections. The EPRDF lost all its seats in Addis Ababa, although the victorious opposition refused to take over the administration, leading to the formation of a Caretaker Administration.