By Fantahun Belay
Tigrai Online Dec. 20, 2012
Local elections have a special place in Ethiopian democracy. Both historically and ideologically/constitutionally.
Ethiopian's first encounter with electoral democracy was the local elections held mid-1992 during the Transitional period, just a year after the downfall of the brutal military dictatorship, .
At the time, the country was governed by a Transitional Government Council, which consisted more than three dozen parties, including OLF. The seat allocation was agreed on by the June 1991 Transitional conference by representatives of almost all political parties, trade unions and other associations, including public figures.
About six months after the Conference, the Transitional Government Council in turn approved the establishment of multi-party regional and zone level governments, paving the way for self-governance of nations and nationalities.
However, Wedera and Kebele administrations were organized by direct elections. Thus, for the first time in history, in June 1992, Ethiopians exercised electoral democracy by determining the composition of local governments through the ballot box.
Besides their historical significance, local elections are a crucial component of the democratic developmental state. The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia states on Article repeatedly underlines direct participation as a defining feature of the state.
The Constitution states in Article 8 (3): "The sovereignty [of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia] shall be expressed through their representatives elected in accordance with this Constitution and through their direct, democratic participation."
In Article 38 (1), the Constitution underlined that: "Every Ethiopian national [has the right] to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly and through freely chosen representatives".
Again, in Article 50 (4), it stipulated that: "State government shall be established at State and other administrative levels that they find necessary. Adequate power shall be granted to the lowest units of government to enable the People to participate directly in the administration of such units."
In line with this Constitutional principles, Ethiopia conducted democratic local elections for the second time in 1996 and 2001, a year after the 1st and the 2nd national and regional elections of 1995 and 2000, respectively. The public determined through secret ballot boxes the composition and implementation directions of Wedera and Kebele administration Councils.
It should be noted these levels of administrations provide most of the essential services for the population and have big roles in facilitating citizen's access to various services provided by higher government organs. They are the venues for public deliberations, mobilizations and making the people's voice heard at higher levels.
However, the role played by local governments was not sufficient to deliver the participatory objectives of the Constitution and the developmental needs of the nation. The policy document entitled "Issues of Democratic System Building in Ethiopia"(2002) noted this and underlined the urgency to strengthen local governments for entrenching Constitutional norms of democracy, national consensus and effective developmental mobilization.
The assessment of the policy document was re-affirmed by the events following the 3rd National and Regional elections of 2005, when reactionary forces, opposed to self-rule and decentralization, succeeded in misleading a significant section of the public and triggering post-election violence.
It was revealed the democratic order was not immune from reversal. Moreover, the situation demonstrated beliefs in the values of decentralized participatory democratic system was not well entrenched. That was partly due to the limited scale of public participation in local governments and their limited capacity to expedite economic improvements and good governance.
Therefore, the government understood the District (Wereda) Level Decentralization programme launched in 2003 had to be implemented even more rigorously, with more emphasis on broadening the participatory element. The components of the program are described in short as:
"Building on the progress made, the focus is on providing adequate staffing to woreda administration; strengthening participation in decision making and planning processes; improving the block grant allocation system; and strengthening local revenue mobilization capacity. Minimum service standards will be developed and implemented at the woreda level. These standards will be regularly disseminated to ensure results accountability."
However, local elections were not held in 2006 as originally planned for three reasons.
One, the post-election violence left a chilling effect on the democratic process. Therefore, the government had to address the problem through nation wide public consultations on administrative problems, national consensus building discussions and by modifying a number of flawed decisions made by some Ministries and regional administrations as per public demand.
Second, the government had to restore confidence on the electoral process by re-affirming the rule of law. Those who incited and master-minded the post-election violence were tried, convicted and sentenced in a Court of law, attended by diplomats, foreign and domestic journalists and other concerned people. Despite Western pressure, the trial went through affirming equality before the law and the duty to abide by the law. It was after the supremacy of the Constitution was re-affirmed that the government accepted the pardon petition of the convicts, so that the nation can move on laving behind that page of history.
Thirdly, the government saw it necessary to enhance the capacity for free, fair and peaceful electoral process. Despite the fact that the ruling party had a majority in the parliament, it voluntarily committed itself to a painstakingly long and tiresome process of consultations with opposition parties to achieve consensus on the necessary improvements on the processes and institutions of electoral democracy, including the election law and the re-organization of the National Board of Election (NBE).
Then, the Parliament appointed a new Board for NBE. Though the Prime Minister has the Constitutional power to nominate candidates for NBE and present them to Parliament for approval, he limited himself to choose only from the list of individuals verified as independent by all parliamentary opposition parties.
The 2008 local elections were held after all these ground-laying works were completed.
The election had two more new elements, however.
The first is, the election of Addis Ababa Administration, which was usually held along with the National and Regional elections. However, the opposition parties, who won the election for Addis Ababa Council in 2005, refused to assume power demanding the formation of a Coalition government at the Federal level, where EPRDF won. Therefore, after about two years under a caretaker administration, the city had to elect again Council members in 2008 alongside local elections.
Another more important change in 2008 was the broadening of the representativeness of Wereda and kebele administrations.
Until 2008, these two administrations had Councils consisting a dozen or two representatives. Public consultation was conducted through public meetings which are called intermittently as need arises. This resulted in failure to address several important local problems on time as well as underrepresentation of sections of the public. Moreover, given the smallness of the Councils and the unstructured nature of the occasional public meetings, the local governments failed to advance the objectives of participatory democracy and to entrench consensus.
Therefore, the number of seats in each Kebele Councils were enlarged to have about 300 representatives. These representatives meet atleast once in 3 months to deliberate on the performance of the Kebele and the Wereda Administrations as well as other issues concerning their electors. These representatives were organized into several standing and ad-hoc committees to follow up the local administrations on regular basis. Moreover, these representatives ensure continuous public participation and mobilization through sub-Kebele level developmental networking of 1 to 5 and 1 to 10 as well as traditional social organizations.
The enlargement of of these local Councils, coupled with their structure, certainly enhanced their representativeness. Therefore, gave more room for a wide-range of political views and social groups to be included in the local decision making process, which affects the day to day life of the people.
The opposition parties and their Western supporters decried this due to ideological reasons. As they correctly observed, the change was in stark contrast with the elitist political system of the liberal democracy and rooted in the participatory principle of revolutionary democracy. It is intended to empower the grassroots and enable the public determine its own destiny.
To make their ideological objection acceptable, these forces claimed the broadening of these local Councils was EPRDF's attempt to control local administrations. This is nonsensical as enlargement of the representative bodies logically enhances the chances of small parties to win at least some seats.
Moreover, EPRDF always won almost all local Councils seats, while the opposition boycotted them. Therefore, EPRDF, a party with strong local political base, would not have had reason to enlarge the local councils if it was occupied with narrow party interests rather than advancing participatory democracy and consensus.
All these are, in reality, pretexts to cover up the opposition parties lack of interest in local elections. In fact, the opposition parties either boycotted or participated halfheartedly since the first local election in 1992.
Firstly, local elections are not attractive for the opposition parties and their Western backers as they provide little opportunity to change the democratic developmental nature of the state into some form of elitist political order.
Secondly, assuming local government power will not be able to satisfy the rent-seeking objectives of the opposition parties, as these administrations are close to public scrutiny and while EPRDF will be supervising from the top. Moreover, in most local administrations, there is little opportunity to collect and distribute rent in the name subsidy to their political bases.
Thirdly, the lack of vision, program, discipline and organizational capacity of opposition parties will be revealed if they take part in local administrations, where service delivery rather than abstract rhetoric matters.
On top of that the opposition party members are mostly focused on personal gains rather than serving the people, they would not be interested to work at the grassroot level.
Therefore, we can assume the opposition parties will not be much interested in local administrations even if EPRDF hands over to them. That is what observed in 2005 when the opposition members elected to Addis Ababa City Council refused to take responsibility even if most of them were not in prison and the government waited for them for almost six months.
Now, the next local elections are few months away. Almost all opposition parties have already expressed their interest to participate in the election. It is to be seen how seriously they will engage in this crucial democratic process.
But the Ethiopian government and public will have no interest with short-sighted calculations and nonsensical pretexts. The government knows it is time to consolidate the participatory character of local governments and further entrench the democratic developmental state.
The people, on other-hand, had learnt local participation is the means to ascertain their gains from the development and strengthen their say in the governance of the nation.
Therefore, it is expected that, once again, voters will turn out at record rates to exercise their Constitutional rights by electing their representatives in about 800 Weredas and thousands of Kebele administrations.