A move to genuine parliamentary democracy is the only path to political stability in Ethiopia.
By Tesfai Hailu
Tigrai Online, Nov. 30, 2017
TPLF’s (Tigrai People’s Liberation Front) Central Committee meeting in Mekelle is viewed by quite a number of people as though the Region’s, if not the Country’s, future hangs in the balance of its outcome. Indeed, supporters and adversaries alike are closely following who is sacked, demoted, reprimanded, promoted or favored to join the inner circle. At the same time, many are confident that a miracle would emerge. Conversely, there are those who are scared the sky may fall and perhaps others eager to see it fall.
The purpose of this opinion piece is to state that this is not how things are supposed to work in parliamentary / representative democracy; argue that at the root of the problem is the mixing of two entirely different systems of politics and governance, and to point a way out of this political entanglement.
Although the path of a multi-party parliamentary system is claimed to have been embarked on in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia over two decades ago, that is not the case in practice, at least not to its fullest, and certainly not when it comes to the role of the political party in power.
Under parliamentary democracy, the function of a political party is to “… bring people together to achieve control of the govt., develop policies favorable to its interests or the group that supports them, and organize and persuade voters to elect their candidates to office”. This means the role of a political party is more or less limited to getting the party elected.
When a party succeeds to win an election – buoyed by the authority granted to it by the constituency – it forms a government. In that case, power falls not in the hands of political party leaders, but rather in the executive branch of govt. / cabinet – consisting of the party leader (who typically becomes the president or premier) as well as ministers who are responsible for developing policies; implementing them, and administering the affairs of the state.
The executive branch / cabinet “derives its legitimacy from and is accountable to parliament”, which in turn is responsible for “making, modifying and changing laws” as well as “challenging and scrutinizing the work of government.”
This of course doesn’t mean that party leaders who play a crucial role as movers and shakers prior to and during election disappear into oblivion or hibernate until next election season that comes four or five years later. Rather, while some join the executive branch of govt. / cabinet, others tend to pay a vital role as advisors (especially if the party is new to governing); recruiting new members to the party; in public relations and positive image creation of the party in public opinion, and in defending the ruling party from criticisms and attacks coming from contending parties or the media.
One thing a political party has no legitimate power over, however, is governance, which indeed is the mandate of the cabinet and, to a lesser degree, that of caucus (“a conference of members of a legislative body”).
Yet, this is not how politics and the machinery of govt. in Tigrai and the country at large have been made and greased to work. Fact is, the highest echelons of the political party known as Central Committee and Polit Bureau are assembled like part and parcel of govt. or at least with no clear boundary, thereby making the line between govt. and party essentially blurred.
And the reason how or why this happened is due to the fact that the ruling party was a subscriber to communist ideology and political structure in which case the party is “the sole ruling / governing body fully responsible for the state’s political and administrative affairs”.
Thus, for one thing, the ruling party, which is dominated by the left-leaning 60s & 70s era politics, finds it difficult to drop the baggage as “old habits die hard” – albeit in a selective manner. For another, it’s not easy to let the outdated structure go as it provides an ample opportunity for political leaders to play the role of puppet masters, and call the shots even after supposedly retiring from politics and governance. Nonetheless, while this may serve party and leaders’ interests well, it comes at a great cost to constituencies, the region and the country at large for reasons stated hereunder.
- It creates a political system whereby the party executive is – or perceived to be – a higher authority than the government executive branch / cabinet, if not higher than even parliament.
- Politicians – who may not even be elected by the people (who are not people’s representatives) – can have tremendous power, hence may exercise undue influence on public policy making and implementation as well as administration.
- As a result of the above two, the electorate could be subjected to accepting political and socioeconomic decisions that are made by TPTB (the powers that be) it does not recall voting for.
- Top party officials could become king and queen makers, and/or may boss around high ranking govt. officials, especially when the latter do not belong or are not connected to the party elite.
- Opens access through the side door entrance and backroom deals, such as via what has become commonly known as “networking”, which has the potential to undermine the power of govt.
- Favoritism, nepotism, political villagism and tribalism can find a fertile ground to flourish.
- Openness, transparency and accountability can be difficult to attain as – unlike parliament – a political party can carry out its business in the dark, with closed doors to the public and media blackout.
- Check and balance would be difficult to exercise as party executives are not accountable to parliament.
- Public resources can be utilized for partisan political end as the relation between party and govt. become ultimately vague.
- It narrows the level playing field for alternative political parties, and in so doing helps dampen the possibility of forming a capable and effective opposition party which, through a “shadow cabinet”, could be a real contender to the throne.
What needs to be done to bring about positive change?
- First and foremost, there has to be public awareness and political leaders’ recognition that this is not how parliamentary democracy works.
- A genuine and non-partisan work has to be carried out to free parliament from being symbolic or a rubber stamp, and empower it to be equipped with capable parliamentarians who are able to grasp and debate policy and procedures, thereby make informed decisions.
- Highly capable ministers with rich knowledge of public policy and governance should be on the driver’s seat. (The title “ሓለፍቲ ቢሮ” – literally “office managers”, contextually “general managers” – needs to be dropped, and be replaced with “ministers”.)
- A mechanism has to be created for veteran politicians and former heavyweight party leaders to consult govt. officials, and transfer their valuable knowledge and skills to rookie politicians as well as administrators.
- The distorted partisan view that condemns competing political parties as enemies of the state and the people, and thereby denying them access to the media and public resources has to come to an end. Instead, legally registered parties should be viewed and treated as nothing other than alternative parties with differing ideology and public policy.
Otherwise, staying the course would only lead to confusion, political & economic stagnation and an uncertain future. So, unless there is a will for genuine and fundamental political reform, the alternative left is to declare communism as the ideology and a communist party as a sovereign governing entity of the land. At least that would enable ambitious politicians with opposing ideology and differing political views to save their energy, time and financial resources.
As well, – thanks in part to information technology and the social media discourse – the increasingly knowledgeable public will know its rightful place to curtail its hopes and aspirations until the right time.
But what is for certain is TPLF / EPRDF politicians can’t continue to have it both ways as the two systems are utterly incompatible, and would ultimately lead to a dead-end road.
Interestingly, there is a 2003 French horror movie titled “Dead End”, which depicts the story of “a dysfunctional family who find themselves on a never-ending road in the middle of a forest during a routine drive on Christmas Eve”. One hopes that politics in Tigrai and the country at large does not become so dysfunctional that is always on endless journey with no clarity whether the plan is to shift gears to representative / parliamentary democracy with multiparty system or keep the shift at neutral (zero) with communist type one-party domination.