By Yitbarek Dawit
Tigrai Online Jan. 21, 2013
Disintegration is the severest problem of all and the one hovering on the head of Medrek. It is said that the disintegration of Ethiopian opposition parties is unseen anywhere in the world.
Ato Bulcha Demeksa founder of the Oromo Federal Democratic Movement (OFDM) opposition party exposed another sign of crack in the troubled Medrek coalition party.
Bulcha is also one of the founders of the Medrek coalition and recently wrote a column in a private magazine outlining with great hesitance a few of the problems of Medrek. As usual, Bulcha's conduct annoyed many of the opposition politicians. They believe weak points of the opposition should be kept a secret and anybody who does is labeled an EPRDF agent.
Nonetheless, Bulcha took a lesson from EPRDF's culture of identifying problems in public and solving them. He tried to explain discussing some problems in open is good for Medrek strength and keeping it secret has the reverse effect.
Bulcha said that "Oromo parties" joining Medrek are considered to have abandoned their struggle for Oromo by their supporters.
The main cause is Medrek is perceived as dominated by Andinet party. Andinet is a remnant of the notorious Kinijit party that existed around 2005. Bulcha said the diaspora makes monetary contribution to Andinet ignoring Medrek. According to Bulcha, Andinet undermines Medrek by presenting itself as the major and strong party in Medrek. Andinet organizes public meetings in its name and refused requests to put fund-raisings revenue in Medrek bank account. Andinet also declined to make its newspaper under Medrek leadership. Bulcha added that it is known Andinet is an "Amhara party or a party of Addis Ababa elites despite putting Dr. Negasso as chairman", so it shouldn't try to act as if it were a multi-ethnic party.
These complaints are not simple issues. Bulcha was pointing to the things that glued these elites in the name of coalition party. These urban elites who are organized as "Amhara", "Oromo", "Tigray", "multi-ethnic", etc. agreed to form Medrek opposition coalition with their own different calculations.
The major calculation was that as a coalition they will be able to milk the diaspora extremists a huge amount of money claiming to be a multi-ethnic and nation-wide party which can take power from EPRDF. They were hoping to emulate Kinijit, which collected millions of dollars that ended up in the pockets of a few of the leaders without any attempt to audit to date. However, the "Oromo parties" are getting support even from the community they claim to support. On the other hand, Andinet is collecting funds both in its name and "by presenting itself as the major and strong party in Medrek". This is a deal-breaker for all parties involved in Medrek, even though they are not saying it in public yet.
However, the problems listed by Bulcha are symptoms of the major problems that cripples the opposition parties and result in their poor electoral performance.
It was in 1991 when the EPRDF defeated the brutal military dictatorship that peaceful opposition parties became legitimate organizations in Ethiopia. As EPRDF is committed to multi-party democracy, it didn't insist the opposition parties to wait until a legal framework is created. To the reverse, it invited all parties to take part in the transitional government as long as they don't declare war and chose peaceful political activity.
With their involvement, a Transitional Government Council consisting dozens of parties was formed. 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.
Few months later, a very liberal law concerning the formation of political parties was put in force. Shortly after that, a multi-party election was held and that continued until today with an increasingly wider and leveled play-field that facilitates the opposition parties ability to compete with the ruling party.
Using this opportunity, ever since multi-party democracy started in Ethiopia, opposition parties have been organizing, forming coalition and disintegrating. But the organizing and disintegration process was not due to the natural process of any healthy organization. To the contrary, many parties start to disintegrate before they even started operating properly .
However, opposition party leaders have long been complaining that government harassment prevented them from being organized and from competing effectively with EPRDF. But it is the weakness of the opposition parties themselves that undermined their ability to became a real electoral threat to EPRDF. They are divided over questions of ideology, strategy and tactic. Opposition parties again and again failed to design clear policy and program alternatives to present themselves as more competent than and EPRDF and to communicate to the people in an effective way. They had also failed to form and sustain real broad-based coalitions countless times since 1993.
The major problems behind Ethiopia's opposition are also seen shared by opposition parties in some African countries and others. Many researchers have studied the flaws of opposition parties in Africa. For instance, Van de Walle and Butler [45, p.15] stated that “African political parties are plagued by weak organizations, low level of institutionalization, and weak links to the society they are supposed to represent.”
One of the most cited example is the case of Botswana, a country which is known for having the longest African multi-party system. However, the dominant party controls the government and ruled the country since independence.
These landslide triumphs of a dominant party are witnessed in several democracies in Africa, Scandinavia and East Asia and most of the time they demonstrate the flaws and inherent problems of the opposition parties, besides the broad-based nature and effective mobilization of the dominant party.
Sadly, these flaws and inherent problems are not only present in Ethiopia's opposition parties, they appear in the worst form possible. Ethiopian opposition parties often have no constituencies, properly elaborated political programs, sufficient interaction with the public and financial transparency are non-existent, internal party democracy is unheard of and many opposition parties are dispersed between elections.
Disintegration is the severest problem of all and the one hovering on the head of Medrek. It is said that the disintegration of Ethiopian opposition parties is unseen anywhere in the world, as parties had broken up to many pieces and even the break-up parties further broken into many. It is mockingly said that if one tries to draw a diagram of the breaking up process, the diagram he creates can be mistaken for a network marketing scheme.
Intra-party friction leads to breaking up as seen in the case of Kinijit. Such squabbles not only further disintegrate opposition parties, but also greatly damage whatever public image they managed to build and also frustrates the people who voted, supported and fund-raised for them.
The member parties of Medrek are infected by this chronic problem. Arena is formed by individuals who refused to abide by party by-laws and resorted to factionalism to solve intra-party opinion differences. OPC was formed by Dr. Merera after the youth of his former party ONC removed him from chairman position and the courts decided the removal was legal.
Andinet is one of the several pieces that left when the former Kinijit disintegrated. Dr. Beyene's party, nominally still a coalition, is abandoned by all its members units. Beyene continued to act in the name of that same party as if nothing happened and gave it a new name recently. This is the case with the all the rest parties in Medrek.
As these parties refused to adopt democratic centralism - the principle that all members shall abide by the decision reached democratically and after sufficient consultations - nor do they have the political and institutional culture that keeps them from breaking apart, it is common to see opposition parties waste most of their time occupied with recurrent intra-party power struggles.
Therefore, it is to be expected that Medrek in general and its member parties in particular suffer from damaging intra-party fights that threatens their existence as long as they fail to distinguish anarchy from democracy and re-organize themselves properly. Accusing EPRDF for their internal problems didn't take them anywhere in the last two decades.
The lack of internal cohesiveness of opposition party organizations goes beyond the question of enforcing party by-laws and respecting collective decision making organs of the party. The very reason they are formed is most of the time dubious.
Many of the opposition parties in Ethiopia are established around individual personalities. They mirror the character of "personality based opposition parties". They revolve around one or a group of individuals who are considered as "intellectual", "experienced", etc.
These individuals which often tied to the previous regime or the business elite, form the parties with the intent of perusing personal ambition as well as interests of a small elite group connected to them. Therefore, they do not have much interest in a democratic intra-party system that will probably remove them from leadership and question the merit of the party's program and tactics.
Therefore, the opposition parties are often deliberately kept without any serious structures beyond the higher executive committee that is personally controlled by the chairman and his associates.
One good example of this is; a few years ago when a split occurred in ONC party, the then Chairman of the party Dr. Merera said without shame that the other faction used a fake stamp because the real one is kept in his home. Keeping stamps, party documents and finance, etc. at the chairman house is considered not as a misconduct rather as a cautious action by opposition leaders and their supporters.
As a result, we can infer that the opposition party's lack of mass-base is their own making, unlike what opposition officials routinely tell the world,
Without even a properly functioning organizational system at their head office, let alone at lower levels, it is unimaginable they can have proper interaction with the urban lower class, the women associations, the farmers and the pastoralist. The opposition party officials, though they fully control all activities of their party, they give it only a fraction of time. They are busy furthering their business and education.
Therefore, their election time hasty works often involve unrealistic promises, shady promises like tax amnesty, smear campaign against government officials and exploiting narrow and rent-seeking tendencies in the public. These efforts may generate some result for a while but they fails to win hearts and minds and fail to create a sustained constituency for the parties.
But these tactics has become less and less effective as the people become more politically aware and educated. One of the continuing problems of the opposition parties is their failure to advance different policy alternatives to the voters. They are frail in terms of developing a wide-ranging political vision. Opposition political parties which are led by lone, part-time politicians do not offer alternate policies to the people. They simply claim the "capability" of the opposition party leaders to lead the government “better” than the ruling party.
These types of political parties do not lead to party stability in the long run. If ruling officials are failing the people, it is the charge of the opposition to step in, in an articulate, clear and rational manner, to offer alternative policy choices on how to deal with the trials that meet the country.
If opposition parties expect to be considered by the majority of Ethiopians, they should offer their alternative policy and show the people how they would do things differently. In other words, as EPRDF usually advise them, they should show their policy alternatives on education, health, children, unemployment and agriculture issues.
The majority of the Ethiopian opposition political parties are short-lived and do not have experience. Therefore, the people do not get a chance to weigh opposition parties’ accomplishments over time. Moreover, one of the most important flaw of such types of opposition parties, as stated by many researchers, is that they rarely developed out of the hopes and aspirations of the society.
Rather, they are the making of personal ambitions, grievances and rent-seeking intentions. The EPRDF’s mass movement experience and its long history of achievements dwarfs the stature of these opposition in whenever they are placed in the face of the voters.
Another root problem of the opposition is that their reliance and official scramble for external funding. External funding including diaspora, in principle, is considered, even in developed democracies as an effort to impact the result of national elections and the directions of political parties.
First of all, foreign funding is considered as something that violates the basic principle of democracy, i.e., the election of governments should express the political preferences of the politically empowered citizens.
Secondly, the political party leaders could turn into totalitarian leaders and may employ a monolithic leadership style. Then they could reject to consider criticisms from their colleagues fearing the disclosure of their shady practices.
Thirdly, the political parties’ dependency on external funding may limit or decline their attachment to their electorate. The political parties’ link with the voters will be fewer as long as they continue to be reliant on foreign aid. Moreover, if the political parties’ link with the voters decreases, they no longer echo the view of the voters because their leaders live comfortable life thanks to the foreign aid.
Fourthly, foreign funding could also lead in to the creation of “party entrepreneurs” i.e. personalities who form political parties to access internationally funds. Therefore, many ambitious persons would be encouraged to form political parties as a short path to fast personal fortune.
These circumstances leads to the further breaking up of political parties: a development barely conducive to democratic alliance. Therefore, currently, many observers believe that foreign funding is both unethical and counterproductive, as it undermines the integrity of the opposition parties and the political system they work in.
As a result of all these flaws and also with the outcome of weakening themselves even more opposition parties tend to boycott elections. However, as observed by researchers in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, there are many cases where the opposition parties boycott elections even if the elections are confirmed “free and fair” just to discredit the ruling party, and when they recognize that their chance of winning is low.
One researcher noted that Opposition parties in Africa had boycotted elections because of several reasons: in Ghana (1992), due to the “illegitimacy of the electoral process”; in Mauritania (1997), due to “the government’s refusal to establish an independent commission”, in Ethiopia (1992,1995), due to the “harassment of the opposition candidates” and so on. Between 1990 and 2001, almost 30% of all elections in the Sub-Saharan Africa were boycotted by at least one opposition party.
In the same period, the losers recognized the election outcomes with objections in two-thirds of the elections in the Sub- Saharan Africa. It is remarkable to see that even in those elections, which were affirmed “free and fair” the losers recognized the outcome only 40% of the time.
However, such election boycotts in Ethiopia are not effective due to the failure of the of the opposition parties action to match with the voters perception of the election. 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. The people, on other-hand, had learnt election participation is the means to ascertain their gains from the development and strengthen their say in the governance of the nation.
In conclusion, the opposition coalition Medrek is once again facing internal bickering because its leaders did not work their homework to become viable organization and a meaningful alternative.
The biggest tragedy is not that Medrek is weak and lack cohesiveness. That can be solved with proper diagnosis and corrections if there is a will. However, they appear determined to continue as anarchic, personality based parties, without alternative policies and real mass base, rather relying on external funding. This is a result of their rent-seeking worldviews and short-sighted political calculations.
That is why Ato Bulcha was complaining quick-fixes, such as sharing revenue from diaspora fund-raisings, etc. He should have been thinking was when, if ever, will Medrek have a clear political program and a real membership base that covers its organizational expenses.
It is incredulous that he was complaining of not using Andinet's newspaper together. It is confusing how the newspaper would work if it were jointly owned by Medrek?
Will a newspaper owned by Medrek propagate about the "right to sell land" or the right of every citizen to use land under state administrations?
Is the newspaper going to lecture the classical liberalism concepts of individual rights concepts or the rational of group rights or social democracy? Which is it?
Will the newspaper call its readers to join the "multi-ethnic" party Andinet or Medrek member parties organizes in the name of their ethnic group?
Is the newspaper supposed to talk about the "generation killer" education policy or about a child's right to learn in mother-tongue?
Will the newspaper speak about the people's right to self-administration or the need to abolish ethnic federalism?
Is the newspaper supposed to talk about neo-liberal trickledown economics or social democracy?
Will the newspaper campaign for "bringing-back" Assab port or the whole Eritrea or simply for getting a piece of land alongside Red Sea?
Is it going to speak in favor of Article 39 or against it?
Will it call for expropriating EFORT, TIRET, etc. or will it consider it as legitimate property of the people?
The list of ideological differences are endless. They cannot be accommodated even in a single newspaper, let alone a political party that claims to be capable of leading a complex country like Ethiopia into a better future.
Even worse, these differences are rooted in the personal preferences of the handful elites that run Medrek. These individuals have no interest nor commitment to democratic centralism. They are not accounted to and guided by a real mass based constituency.
Their funding sources are detached from the reality on the ground and do not go beyond applauding and raising funds whenever Medrek makes provocative statements and takes confrontational positions.
With all these structural, tactical and ideological flaws, it is inconceivable how Medrek can become a real player in the national politics and put the ruling party in check.
These problems cannot be solved by simple quick-fixes suggested by Ato Bulcha, rather they need a real surgery with the participation of all stakeholders. The opposition media should better stop scratching the ego of these misguided opposition personalities rather push them for real reforms that will make them a meaningful players.
Until then, Ethiopia shall continue its democracy and economic stride. It is the shoe that should fit the foot, not the other way round.