By Hilina Lakew
Tigrai Onlne - April 10, 2014
The quarrel between opposition parties Medrek, UDJ and AEUP has occupied much of the space in newspapers and magazines, as well as online platforms in the past few months.
A couple of months ago, “Medrek” opposition coalition expelled its member UDJ party for a “disciplinary offence” and “for making statements that are contrary to the political program of the coalition” after a protracted disagreement between the chiefs of UDJ and the other parties in Medrek.
Subsequently, UDJ and AEUP parties started negotiation to form their own new opposition coalition. After making too much fuss about their unity and plan, they suddenly announced the negotiation failed and started blaming one another. Now, the media is busy presenting their accusations and responses.
As if the two quarrels were not enough there was also a third story. The AEUP party which conducted a general meeting and elected its “new” leadership three months ago is now bogged down in a power struggle. Almost half of the higher leadership including the secretariat general is petitioning for an emergency general meeting against the president of the party.
These events are a reflection of the state of opposition politics in Ethiopia.
It is commonplace among opposition parties of Ethiopia to blame the government and the ruling party for their weak and fractured state. Some western organizations and individual pundits and journalists make similar assertions without checking the matter in detail.
There also misplaced blames on the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Front for becoming a highly popular party and dominant party. Nevertheless, EPRDF's ascendance to its current status did not come over-night. To the contrary, EPRDF made multi-party politics a reality and provided the essential framework for their continued existence.
In fact, opposition parties received legal recognition for the first time in Ethiopia in 1991 when the EPRDF defeated the brutal military dictatorship. In demonstration of EPRDF's committed to multi-party democracy, the EPRDF-led transitional government didn't hold the formation of opposition parties until a legal framework is created.
Instead EPRDF invited all parties that didn't declare war and expressed their interest to take part in peaceful political activity in the transitional government hence a Transitional Government Council consisting dozens of parties was formed. The seat allocation was determined at 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 legislation 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 opening for multi-party democracy, 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, EPRDF continued to demonstrate its commitment to multi-party politics. One of the recent examples is the decision of the EPRDF leadership to share its share of finance with smaller parties. Each year when the government allocates finance for political parties, EPRDF gives away more than a million birr of its share to other opposition parties in a transparent manner and criteria determined by a council of opposition parties' consultation forum.
Similarly, the recent quarrel among the opposition parties discredits the frequent excuse of opposition parties that government harassment prevented them from being organized and from competing effectively with EPRDF.
Indeed, it is the weakness of the opposition parties themselves that undermined their ability to become 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 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.
Another recent and common excuse of the opposition parties is that Ethiopia's developmental state paradigm favors EPRDF and limits the participation of opposition parties. This is another major misleading claim unsupported by facts.
A dominant party system is not an invention of EPRDF, it was observed in the histories of developmental states in Asia, such as Japan, Taiwan, etc. 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.
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 dominant party systems do not come through undemocratic means. They are an outcome of careful scientific analyses of the politico-economic realities and an effective mobilization of social forces.
The former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi explained the democratic nature of the developmental state and the emergence of the dominant party system in the following manner: "Democratic developmental states have been an even rarer species than developmental states in general. But those states that have played a developmental role and have done so in a democratic fashion, such as the social-democratic coalitions in some Scandinavian countries and the center-right coalition in Post Second World War Japan, the so called dominant partly democracies can point to one way out....The ruling coalitions in these countries have had regular, free, open and fair elections, and the basic political and human rights have been respected. They thus fully qualify as democratic regimes. But they have won elections repeatedly and have been in power for long-stretches. In the case of Japan the ruling coalition has been in power for almost 50 years.
With the votes of the peasants who constitute the bulk of the coalition, with the democratic potentials of a socially transformed peasant, the developmental coalition will have what it needs to rule democratically to ensure continuity by democratic means and to stamp out patronage and rent-seeking activities. A coalition based on the very sector, which has historically been the victim, rather than the beneficiary of patronage and rent-seeking activities will have all the will to stump it out.
A coalition that covers much of the rural and urban population but is firmly based on the rural base, that includes all those that have very little to gain from patronage and rent-seeking, a coalition that includes the vast majority of the population and hence can guarantee continuity through the democratic process would be a solid base for a state that is both democratic and developmental. Such a state would in effect be one form of the so-called dominant party or dominant coalition democracy. Such a state based on a solid and dominant coalition of forces who have no stake in patronage and rent-seeking would be able to avoid and overcome socially wasteful patronage and rent-seeking.....The most likely scenario for a state that is both democratic and developmental to emerge is in the form of a dominant party or dominant coalition democracy."
Therefore, as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's explanation shows the emergence of a dominant party is simply a result of the democratic operation of social and democratic forces and cannot be an excuse for opposition parties.
The major problems behind Ethiopia's opposition are not different from those observed in other rent-seeking political economies in African countries and beyond. In most of such countries, "political parties are plagued by weak organizations, low level of institutionalization, and weak links to the society they are supposed to represent.”
One of their major limitations is the absence of democratic centralism - the principle that all members shall abide by the decision reached democratically and after sufficient consultations. Moreover, they also lack 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, UDJ and AEUP, as well as other similar parties cannot escape 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.
In fact, 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, who are 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 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 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, despite 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 to have proper interaction with the urban lower class, the women associations, the farmers and the pastoralist. Opposition party officials, though they fully control all activities of their party, they give it only a fraction of their time. They are usually 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 fail to win hearts and minds and fail to create a sustained constituency.
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 stability of multi-party system 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, citizens do not get a chance to weigh opposition parties’ accomplishments over time. Moreover, one of the most important flaws of such types of opposition parties, as stated by many researchers, is that they are 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 dwarf the stature of these opposition parties in the face of the voters.
Another root problem of the opposition is 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 lead 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 realize their chance of winning is low.
With all these structural, tactical and ideological flaws, it is inconceivable how these parties 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; 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.