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Why Election Boycott Is a Suicidal Idea and a Surer Road to Political Extinction

By Tesfaye Habisso
Tigrai Online Feb. 07, 2013


The purpose of this brief paper is to show the futility and failure of electoral boycotts by opposition parties in Ethiopia to bring about the desired outcome (pressure the ruling party to agree on political concessions or force regime change, etc.) or make any meaningful impact on the political process due to the existence of over 75 organizationally and financially weak and fragmented political groups which have so far played an inconsequential role in the national and regional parliaments [legislature] as well as in the government [executive branch] and the judiciary at the federal and regional levels of the nation’s political system as they have so far failed to win any worthwhile victory in the periodic elections since the birth of the FDRE Constitution in 1994/95. They have thus miserably failed so far to win public office and to gain power and influence over public policy and state resources, save their bungled but noteworthy electoral victory in the May 2005 national and regional elections due to their admirable success of forming a unified opposition bloc, CUDP, that was able to produce a plausible electoral manifesto as well as to mercilessly expose the weaknesses of the ruling party and thus proving itself capable enough to mobilize the electorate on its side in many parts of the country. It is sad that the same groups are now planning to boycott the upcoming regional elections instead of creating a unified and credible opposition bloc, as they successfully did in the year 2005, in order to challenge the ruling party after two months. This decision, as far as I am concerned, is not only wrong tactically and strategically but a self-defeating and suicidal stance that is a surer road to their political extinction.

If the political posturing that is heard over the news channels and print media from the opposition camp goes beyond an act of sheer bravado, the run-up to the April 2013 regional elections in Ethiopia appears to be déjà vu all over again; twenty-nine or so political parties that belong to the opposition bloc, which were mauled in the 2010 national elections by the incumbent party, have recently made a public announcement on their decision to pull out of the upcoming regional elections to protest the complete domination of the political system by the ruling party, the EPRDF, and that they would no longer accept and tolerate the prevailing hostile political environment in the country where: “the lines between the state and ruling party are blurred and not distinctly drawn, there is no just use of the public media by all parties, opposition parties cannot freely operate and conduct their activities without any interference from state and ruling party agents, the election commission is not free from the influence of the ruling party and is not thus impartial in its administration of periodic lections, there is no respect for the rule of law, there are oppressive laws enacted in the name of countering terrorism, and in sum, where citizens’ human and democratic rights are not guaranteed and enforced, and there is no level playing field and open political space for opposition parties, etc.” [Yegna Press, Tir 29/2005]. Although these allegations against the ruling party are not unfounded and brushed aside as wild accusations, there is no other short-cut to political power except through persistent and patient political struggle to achieve their objectives; the road to democracy and freedom is not at all paved with smooth ‘red carpets’ but bumpy and tortuous. Whatever the case, electoral boycotts do not serve as the best strategy to pursue for the concerned boycotting parties as they do not enjoy a groundswell support from the electorate at present and thus cannot force the incumbent party and government to bend to their demands or incite street rebellions, general strikes and the like to oust the current rulers from office. I do not see such a possibility to unfold in Ethiopia now or in the near future.

However, any critical observer of Ethiopian politics since the last two decades and a half can easily understand the frustration of opposition parties in the nation’s political arena. For all opposition parties, the choice of whether to participate in or boycott the periodic elections has been a perplexing dilemma, akin to the so-called old Egyptian way of trying a witch: It is told that, in ancient Egypt, when a woman was suspected of being possessed by evil spirit or witch-craft, they would throw her into the sea; if the woman floats in the sea, it means she is possessed by evil spirit and thus they would pull her out of the sea and burn her at stake; however, if she drowns and dies in the sea, it means she is free of any evil spirit; either way, the woman is forcibly sent to death, and a loser either way. Neither option is likely to result in success. In a similar fashion, opposition parties in Ethiopia have so far been unsuccessful to win power by participating in the periodic elections except legitimizing the elections to the international community. Sadly, for these opposition parties, on the other hand, choosing to boycott would only guarantee a landslide election victory to the ruling party, further entrenching it in place. The boycott might remove the veneer of democratic legitimacy of the ruling regime, but it doesn’t change the facts on the ground. In these situations, there are no clear good options for opposition parties but election boycotts are certainly not one of them under the prevailing conditions in Ethiopia.

Be this as it may, it is only a mere hope of some of us in the pensioners camp, these opposition  political parties, perhaps, may walk back from the brink at the last minute and decide to participate, hopefully signaling a growing understanding that non-participation in the political process in general and election boycotts in particular rarely succeed. The Ethiopians know this better than most, having learned this lesson the hard way beginning from the transition period in 1991 and the 1992 regional elections as well as the 1994 national and regional elections. Let us probe this issue in some detail here below.

Examples of Failed Political/Electoral Boycotts from Our Recent Past The well known and long established Ethiopian political parties in exile, in America and Europe, such as the EPRP, AESM, MEDHIN, etc. refused to renounce their position of pursuing violence and war to achieve their political objectives in Ethiopia when invited by the EPRDF provisional government to participate in the 1991 July Peace and Democracy Transition Conference and thus these groups’ decision not to participate in the historic transition process in 1991 is now viewed by many observers as one of the great strategic blunders of the post-Derg era, forcing them to grapple with their distressed and exiled status in foreign lands and making them irrelevant political forces as far as their homeland’s politics and destiny is concerned. As if this wrong-headed decision was not enough, the OLF and the SEPDC, ARDUF, ONLF, SLM and a few other groups who were participants in the transition process pulled out of the 1992 regional elections and the Transitional Council of Representatives [CoR], accusing the EPRDF party of suppressing and persecuting their members and supporters and similar other undemocratic measures targeting opposition political parties in general. What befell these political parties since their pull-out from the political process and the 1992 regional elections is quite obvious from their current insignificant position and role in the country’s administration, some of them such as the OLF, SLM, SEPDC, etc. splitting into factional groupings and a few of them (OLF, ONLF, Guenbot 7) outlawed as terrorists to the dismay of their erstwhile supporters. It also gave the EPRDF and its allies free reins to conduct the Constitution drafting process and the election of a Constituent Assembly according to its ideological conviction and the subsequent adoption of the FDRE Constitution in 1994 without any challenges or hurdles at all and thus be able to completely dominate the country’s political and economic system ever since. Subsequently, many opposition parties boycotted the 1994 national and regional elections that were the basis for the establishment of the FDRE Government in accordance with the 1994 Constitution and again, the EPRDF snatched an overwhelming majority of parliamentary votes to easily form a government of its own making and ideal.

Unsurprisingly, all the opposition parties were utterly marginalized in the political system, leaving them out in the cold during the key formative months and years in the new Ethiopia. The boycotts also deprived them of a fair share in the constitutional drafting process, and without adequate representation in Parliament, the opposition parties were unable to prevent the new constitution from passing. Potential revisions to the document remain one of the key sticking points between the EPRDF and the opposition parties in Ethiopia. To their credit, the opposition bloc, excluding the long exiled dissident groups, the OLF, the ONLF, and ARDUF, quickly saw the error of their ways and participated in the May 2005 elections, upping their representation in the Parliament in the tune of 170 seats and winning the Addis Abeba City Council by a landslide, snatching 37 seats out of the total of 38 seats that make up the City Council, but miserably failed to take advantage of their hard-won victory in the elections because of their own follies by pursuing violent methods of claiming more seats that they believed they had won in the elections despite the election commission’s declaration to the contrary, and eventually sending their leaders to prison for life, sentenced on charges of treason and endangering the constitutional order in place.

The above examples are illustrative of the thesis of this paper: pulling out of the political process/system and electoral boycotts rarely work, and the non-participating or the boycotting party almost always ends up worse off than before. In this regard, many studies by different scholars have convincingly shown that “actual boycotts, [not mere threats], almost always have ended in utter failure. In addition to removing the boycotting party or parties from any governmental role they have also resulted in one or more of three major negative outcomes: marginalization of the boycotting group, further empowerment of the existing ruler and his party, and unexpected negative changes to election dynamics.”

[Mathew Frankel, 2010] In short, you can’t win if you don’t participate. After all, the purpose of the participation of political parties, candidates, interest groups and voters in periodic elections is to win public office and to gain power and influence over public policy and state resources. And to achieve these objectives, political parties facing an all-powerful and dominant single ruling party as the EPRDF in Ethiopia have to form alliances, coalitions and mergers in order to catapult themselves to the helms of state power and be able to influence over public policy and state resources. Electoral boycotts cannot produce any worthwhile results in this regard. How can any political party, candidate, interest group or voter win public office and gain power and influence over public policy and state resources if it boycotts an election? It absolutely can’t. Why boycott then?

Whither Should the Opposition Parties Go?

The last 21 years or so of our experience with plural politics in Ethiopia has proven that the opposition's Achilles heel lies in its constant rivalries and fragmentation. Thus opposition unity has so far remained a farfetched vocabulary. The fact of the matter is that not one opposition party in the current composition of Ethiopian Parliament can have an impact on decision-making or influence proposed legislation tabled in parliament. The irony is that even when all opposition parties combine their manpower, experience and support it will still be but a mere fraction of the overwhelming and massive support enjoyed by the EPRDF party and the latter‟s hugely consequential representation in parliament. To ignore and defy this reality by entertaining and pursuing a confrontational style and language as well as approach of opposition, as advocated by a few diehards at home and in the Diaspora, is to defy and ignore the realities, with dire consequences for the fragile democratization process in the country as a whole and for the opposition in particular.

The smooth governance of any country depends on the opposition being responsible, and a responsible opposition does not scream and shout, and use bad language or emotional and unreasonable arguments (demagogy), merely for the sake of opposition and newspaper or television coverage but shows great responsibility and an earnest attempt in trying to influence policy and decision making. It means that private discussions with government Ministers and ruling party leaders can take place, influencing and advising on policy issues where and whenever necessary, cooperating in parliament where it is for the benefit of the country and its people and to make available to parliamentary committees all the necessary experience and knowledge of its members.

Whereas open, peaceful clash of ideas, debate, and objective criticism is necessary for building a democratic culture, unprincipled political belligerence and confrontational style of politics has a smack of selfish ambition for nothing but power, not altruism; power as an end and not as a means to serve the Ethiopian people. This must be avoided by all means and by all mature politicians, both in the ruling party and the opposition bloc in general.

In a country that currently suffers from severe problems in the areas of food production and food security, economic development, rule of law, political and economic governance, and health, etc., all the political parties being responsible and constructive is indeed crucial. A belligerent, confrontational and uncompromising posture and style of politics by those in the ruling party as well as the opposition bloc would be sufficient not merely to paralyze our country but also to cause panic among our domestic and foreign investors and the development partners. Sadly, political struggles in this country so far are primarily driven by the desire to be in power for power's sake and the ultimate desire to cling to it at any cost than any meaningful concern for policy alternatives and the general public good.

As we, in Ethiopia, have embarked upon a process of democratization for the first time and are thus new converts to democracy and its concept, values, rules and procedures, inevitably, not all organizations respect their declared commitments. And not all understand properly the significance and essence of peaceful and democratic operations and bounds. We are all learners in democracy. In this learning process, some learn fast; some take more time to learn; some simply do not want to learn. This naturally affects, to some degree, the smooth transition of our country and our peoples to fuller and functioning, participatory democracy. In time, however, we are all convinced that all will come to appreciate the fact that democracy is a learned, not an inherited system, and it can evolve as an organic outgrowth of development, and survive only if the duties of living together in one human society, one economic and political community, are given proper consideration and respect, and on our genuine commitment to regular and respectful dialogue with all parties and interest groups at home and abroad. No democratic right is absolute and one major limitation of such a right is respect for the rights of others. Ignorance or neglect of this interconnection between democratic rights and duties endangers the very basis of democracy.

Be this as it may, the dynamics of the Ethiopian political landscape is such that, it might take many more years for any credible opposition to evolve and become a reality in Ethiopia. It should not be overlooked that " given the existence and persistence in power of a single dominant party [EPRDF], which is a broad coalition of ethnic-based parties, and the ethno-territorial nature of politics", as well as the kind of electoral system in place (the single-member-constituency or the first-past-the-post electoral system as opposed to proportional representation), opposition parties, which are already fragmented and organizationally and financially weak, will surely face tremendous difficulties, in their struggle, even if all limitations on their activities were removed completely by the ruling party, to evolve in a short period

of time into a meaningful and strong opposition to the EPRDF, which has enjoyed and still enjoys the full advantages of being an incumbent political party that has a monopoly on the nation‟s public resources since the last 21 years or so, and be able to checkmate the incumbent government or influence decisions in parliament. However, those opposition parties which realize this glaring reality and decide on building grand coalition and unified front as well as choose to play a constructive role as „loyal‟ or legal oppositions will develop into credible opposition parties worth reckoning with in the future. This will surely happen if they diligently and patiently work as a unified and well organized force and invest for the long-term realization of their dreams. It will happen eventually and is needed to counter the current domination of the political landscape by the EPRDF ruling party.

However, the present trend which clearly attests to the proliferation of too many weak parties across the country's political arena is not also promising for viable opposition parties to evolve in the near future. Ethiopia at present has about 75 or so registered political parties among which 10 or more are national parties (some of them claiming multiethnic base) and the rest regional as well as ethnic-based local parties, as the National Electoral Board has recently announced to the general public. The truth of the matter is that this proliferation of parties does not augur well for Ethiopia. There is no evidence of parties emerging to address policy issues that have not been taken care of by either the incumbent party and government or the existing opposition. What we see is focus on disagreements; that when people no longer like each other, or seek to emerge as political leaders in their own right, they form their own new parties or factional groupings. Parties that stand the test of time are those based on solid principles and issues. That is in part what attracts large numbers of followers and financial contributions from those who see their aspirations embedded in the manifesto of a particular party. Ultimately, in politics, the bigger the entity the better is its chances of success and survival. And the fewer the parties, the more mature the politicians and the more meaningful the political process. People need alternatives, yes; but they also need political direction, and the emergence of more and more parties only serves to confuse the voters more. And, besides, there are hardly any new ideas that these parties are introducing to our political marketplace. They are simply short of ideas, content to say nothing at all or to repeat what others have said before and we already know and are long bored and tired of hearing them. A close look at the leadership marketplace will tell you that there is really no need for new parties. And there is certainly no need for parties to split up. What we need to see now is parties recognizing the obvious; that they are too small and too weak to stand alone and the best way forward for them would be mergers, alliances, cooperation and coalition. If they want to achieve better and more results and sooner, opposition parties should pursue the path of creating a unified and strong front or coalition and the role of responsible and constructive opposition politics, that is, to play the role of „loyal‟ or legal opposition and to abide by the rules of the game. All other options are destined to fail.

Legal or loyal opposition, however, does not mean that government will not be criticized. It only means that it will be criticized objectively and constructively with the objective of extracting good economic and political governance for the public good. A responsible opposition is not just an opposition party vehemently

criticizing the ruling party and government at every occasion and forum simply for the sake of criticizing and discrediting its achievements and magnifying its failures. A responsible opposition will support government where their actions contribute towards the benefit of the people of Ethiopia and will give the necessary credit where due, and will assist the incumbent government in tackling major national problems that the country faces from time to time, but it will also not allow government to act when it

believes that the government's actions or decisions will be to the detriment of Ethiopia and her peoples.

Thus, I am at no loss to conclude that the country's well-being will be better served when those who claim to have the welfare of Ethiopia and her peoples at heart fully adopt and abide by the fundamental values, principles, rules and procedures of democracy as well as a strong spirit of reconciliation, compromise, tolerance and political magnanimity.

Opposition parties in Ethiopia must realize that to wrest political power from the ruling party is indeed an uphill task that requires long years of hard work and sweat. After all, no opposition worldwide can expect the incumbent party and government to hand over power on a silver platter. They need to organize and strengthen their structures to struggle and fight peacefully with sound and feasible alternative policy options, strategies and programs that may secure them the support of the majority of the voters or the electorate. The use of force and violence to wrest power from the ruling party and government is simply self-destructive and suicidal. Violence begets more violence and bloodshed, even civil war, not peace and democracy. Above all, as the Apartheid era president of South Africa, Pik Botha, once said: “If you take power by violence, you will rule by violence and will be removed from power by violence.” Who in his/her right mind would advocate for such a self-defeatist and vicious circle of conflict, destruction and chaos to spoil our future?

So far as electoral boycotts are concerned, from the perspective of the opposition parties in question, it is very clear that such measures are not the correct strategy, as the opposition bloc in general does not yet enjoy widespread support and does not command substantial respect as well as show tangible persistence to remove the incumbent regime. On the other hand, if the opposition parties reconsider their stance and choose to participate in the up-coming regional elections, they will at least have some stake in the system; if they choose to boycott, they will be on the outside looking in and as an old Kambaata saying warns: “If you choose to remove yourself from inside the house and seek to remain outside,you cannot possibly know whether the house is leaking or not; so, better to remain inside the house than standing outside the house, even if the kitchen of the house may be quite hot for you.” Further, history has clearly demonstrated that the international community and the other development partners are seldom willing to intervene and save them. Above all, according to the electoral law of our country on political party registration, any political party or group that boycotts or finds itself unable to participate in two successive elections is destined to be removed by the National Electoral Board from the list of legally registered political parties and barred from any participation in future elections.

Under this situation, opposition parties would be better served by focusing on other electoral strategies, including, inter alia, forming coalitions, mergers and strategic alliances, trying to prevent harmful infighting as well as to earn electoral concessions or some form of power-sharing agreement with the ruling party and government in future elections. Undoubtedly, electoral boycott by the aforementioned opposition parties is not only a very bad idea but a surer road to their eventual demise and political extinction. This must be avoided by the opposition leadership at all costs.

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