The Ethiopian General Election, the PM’s Stratagem and Democratic Federalists’ Counter-Strategy
By Makonnen Tesfaye
Tigrai Online Nov. 13, 2019
The Government is undermining the fundamental principle of Multi-National Federalism with a view to establishing a totalitarian (Medemer), hegemonist (chauvinist) and unitarian (Anti-federalist) state.
“All sovereignty power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia”; “the Constitution is an expression of their sovereignty”; and that “their sovereignty shall be expressed through their representatives elected in accordance with the Constitution and through their direct democratic participation”.
(Article 8, on the Sovereignty of the People, the Constitution of the EFDR)
“We cannot have free government without elections; and if the Rebellion (American Civil War) could force us to forego, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us”
(President Abraham Lincoln, 1864)
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of governments; this will be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or equivalent free voting procedures”
(Article 41 of UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948)
- The General Election is about the Federal Constitution.
1.1 The General Election, the PM’s stratagem and democratic federalist alliances and responses are the most immediate and critical challenges facing the country, the outcome of which will determine the trajectory of politics, peace and democratic discourse, and the prospect of the Ethiopian State at least in the short and medium terms.
1.2 With varying degrees of freedom, fairness and credibility, the EPRDF held regularly 5 Generation Elections in conditions of war, “No War, No-Peace”, potential famine and natural disasters over the last 27, ushering in a period of unprecedented peace and stability, economic development and relative democracy. That the democratic developmental state has been work-in-progress is unquestionable; and the Front has had its many and significant weaknesses, in particular pertaining to the challenges of governance, the prevalence of economic rent-seeking and the too centralised implementation of federalism. With the advent to power of the current “EPRDF” Government led by PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) the hope and expectation was the rejuvenation (Tehadiso) of the Front, in particular with regard to democratisation, decentralised federalism and economic justice. Yet, the hope has been dashed soon after what looked like a promising start. The prevailing reality is too centralised state (aided by military command posts), erosion of civil society; elite-induced social strife and ethnic conflicts, political instability and the generalised break-down of the rule-of-law. These are because of the often self-inflicted political crisis instigated by the Government’s unconstitutional actions and the divisive and sectarian politics and ideology of the PM.
1.3 Whether to hold the General Election on schedule, and the destruction of the “EPRDF” and the formation of the so called “Ethiopian Prosperity Party” (with an alternative name of Ethiopian National Democratic Party), are critical, tactical components of the PM’s stratagem for his ultimate goal of establishing a One-Nation, unitarian and presidential state in lieu of the Multi-National Federalism. Despite his public pronouncement, as a chairman of the EPRDF, that the general Election is to be held as scheduled, the Government has not made an official statement or commitment to this effect. This is a deliberate ploy to suit the PM’s calculation on whether holding an election would consolidate his power or not. His ambivalent position on the Election is based on the prospect of “merging the EPRDF” before the scheduled Election, where time is of the essence. Until very recently the PM was probably confident of “merging the EPRDF” and declaring his Prosperity Party. Yet, it appears that the PM has encountered a major obstacle, namely his inability to get a full buy-in for a merger from the OPDO/ODP, in particular from the rank and file membership, the outcome of which is yet to fully unfold. The opposition for a merger from influential Oromo nationalists, Jawar Mohammed being the most prominent, has further complicated the PM final decision on the timing of the Election. More so as we approach the scheduled General Election, which is only six months away. Judging by the evidence and activities on the ground the odds are that the General Election will very probably be postponed. The PM’s deceptive tactics is to appear to consent to holding an election until the final days when a postponement is declared at the last moment. By then it becomes de-facto too late. Moreover, it would be too late for the opposition to pressurise and force the Government to hold the Election on time.
1.4 The tell-tale signs on the ground that the General Election will not be held as scheduled are many and include:
- The Government has not made an official pronouncement on the Election.
- The National Electoral Board (dominated by former Kinigit and present EZEMA politicians including Birtukan Mideksa and Berhanu Nega (PhD)) which is aligned with the PM’s stratagem, has not made the necessary pre-election preparations, such as the setting up of electoral rolls; designating, deploying and training of election officials and supervisors. publication of election modalities, rules and manuals; and announcing election schedules and programmes.
- The ENEB’s reluctance and its proven incompetence and partisan approach is shown , for example, by its mal-handling of the demand for a Referendum in Sidama, resulting in the death of hundreds of people. Similarly, the ENEB has deliberately and completely ignored demands for referendums from a number of nationalities in the SNNP Region.
- How the PM has prepared the Ground for a Postponement of the Election.
2.1 The key tactics of the PM for undermining the Federal Constitution is to alter the balance of forces in the House of Federation, which is designed to ensure the interests of the vast majorities of nationalities in Ethiopia as a well as a check and balance to the House of Representatives, whose representation is proportional to Regions’ population (i.e. like the Senate and the House of Representatives in the US Legislature). By suppressing the democratic federalist voices and promoting unitarians within the SEPDM, the PM has managed to align it to his grand strategy of establishing a One-Nation State. His suppression, most expressed by the State of emergency in SNNP region (dressed-up as Military Command Posts), of the demands for Regional Statehood by nationalists in Sidama, Welaita, Kaffa, Gamo, Gurage, Kambata and Hadiya, to mention but a few, serves to undermine democratic federalist voices in the House of Federation, since a 2/3 majority is necessary for most amendments to the Constitution.
2.2 The cancelation of the National Census, as potential excuse for not holding a general election.
2.3 The violation of the Constitutions and the breakdown of the rule-of-law resulting in political instability, social strife and internal displacement, which serve his Machiavellian ploy to postpone the Election.
2.4 Polarising the political atmosphere by sowing the seed for conflicts and by cynically fanning, or ignoring inter-ethnic clashes. It is a paradox that the most polarising politician the country has seen for decades poses as a democrat, consensus-builder and peace-maker, which is, of course, a narrative that is propagated by enemies of the country, the neo-liberal world media and hegemonists of all cue and colour.
2.5 The declaration of the de-facto state of emergencies (dressed up as military command posts) in most of the Regions, including in the SNNP, Guji, Borona and Welega Zones in Oromia, parts of Afar and Somalia.
2.6 The current and ongoing, and deliberately induced ethnic conflicts in universities.
2.7 Clandestine attacks against Regions (e.g. recent clandestine attack on Tigray by armed insurgents from the Amhara Region) to foment Inter-Regional clashes or possibly wars. It appears that the Tigray Region is not taking the bait, but appears to be addressing the issue quietly and in like manners, perhaps.
- Legal Arguments
3.1 The legal argument for holding the Election as per the constitution is compelling. The 5 year term and duration of the House of Peoples’ Representatives and the House of Federation are determined by Article 54, Sub-article 1 and Article 58, Sub-article 3 for the former and Article 67, Sub-Article 2 for the latter. Moreover, the Fundamental Rights and Freedom contained in Chapter Three of the Constitution, in particular Article 38, Sub-Article 1(c) (rights to vote and to be elected) stipulates the “right to vote and to be elected at periodic elections to any office at any level of Government; elections shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors”.
3.2 The PM cynically believes (as in his recent statement) that the 5 year term and duration of the House of Representatives and the House of Federation stated in the Constitution could be easily amended; say to 7 years, or 8 or etc. (why not 10 years, or more!). There are three pertinent legal and constitutional issues against this argument. Firstly, this refers to future term and duration of Parliament not for the existing and sitting Parliament; otherwise this would fundamentally and essentially undermine the whole essence and tenets of representative democracy by creating the condition for self-serving, perpetual sitting of an existing parliament without the need to renew its mandate. This will be a total and complete travesty of democracy if elected and sitting parliamentarians could perpetuate their rule by revising the constitution to extend their mandate without submitting themselves for re-election; a sure way of descending to “Elected Dictatorship” reminiscent of Hitler’s rise to power through the means of illegal “parliamentary” manoeuvres, or recent African regime experiences where heads of state illegally extending their term and duration by “constitutional” means. Secondly, the amendment to the Constitution pertaining to term and duration of Parliament will require 2/3 majorities in both Houses and 2/3 majority support from members states of the Federation. The third argument, a much higher threshold, refers to Article 38, Sub-article 1(c), the amendment of which will require 2/3 majority of both Houses and the approval of ALL the State Councils.
3.3 The are also legal arguments that the unconstitutional extension of the terms and duration of an existing and sitting parliament undermines Article 39 of the Constitution, which is tantamount to undermining the rights of self-determination, including and up to secession. This can unravel a host of issues that can undermine the whole foundation of the Federal State. Amending Article 39 will require 2/3 majorities in both Houses And the approval of ALL State Councils.
3.4 The other ploy by the Government to postpone the General Election could be through the declaration of a State of Emergency. However, even under a state of emergency there is no legal provision to postpone the Election. Moreover, the fundamental rights and freedom to vote and to be elected stipulated under Article 38, Sub-article (1c) or Article 39 cannot be supressed under any condition including under a state of emergency.
3.5 Therefore, the extension of the term and duration of the existing House of Representatives and House Federation will be unconstitutional, and hence the Government would be illegal an illegitimate, the full implications of which are too detrimental to the existence of the state and too difficult to imagine the political, peace and security consequences at this point in time.
- Political and Ideological Arguments
4.1 The political and ideological arguments provided by those who propagate the postponement of the election are based the prevalence of a degree of social and ethnic strife, internal displacement (reversing his recent statement, via the President, that currently the are only 100,000 internally displaced people!), break-down of the rule-of law and generalised insecurity. Failure to hold the National Census is also given as a reason. Yet, there are compelling political arguments for holding the General Election on schedule.
4.2 Failure to conduct a National Census could not be a legitimate and binding reason for a postponement. What matters decisively for the distribution of the 547 parliamentary seats are relative (not absolute) population sizes of the Regions. Although the absolute sizes of the population of the country and the Regions have grown over the last 12 years, it is not the case there will be significant changes in the relative sizes of the Regions’ populations, assuming their population grew by 2.5% annually and no significant inter-Regional migration. That is why most national elections in the world are held every 4 years whereas national censuses are conducted every ten years or more. The marginal benefit of a national census is to tweak the numbers at the margins. At any rate demography has become so politicised in Ethiopia to be credible and useful for the current election cycle. If anything it would be fiercely contested, adding fuel to the existing conflict environment (e.g. the demographic politics in Addis Ababa/Finfine). This is because of the alleged demographic engineering and the manipulation of demography for political ends. Strategic and deliberate inflation of Regional populations is too pervasive in the Ethiopian political landscape. It would be better not to employ new census for electoral purposes until and when a more scientific and verifiable census infrastructure is put in place and census results are accepted as credible. The existing census results that provide relative sizes of the Regions are sufficient for the proportionate distribution of the 547 Parliamentary seats.
4.3 An often cited and predominately neo-liberal argument for not holding elections in countries in “transition to democracy” with weak institutions and experiencing social strife and political instability is that election will exacerbate the problems, making the situation worse rather than better. This is the idea that democratisation is correlated with social strife and ethnic-conflict, where they argue that under condition of under-developed institutional development, multiparty elections may lead to violence, ethnic-conflict and civil war, rather than to the peaceful transfer of power. Yet, in a seminal 2012 empirical study by Jose Cheibub, Jude Hays and Burcu Savun of 351 multi-party elections, 118 presidential and 233 parliamentary, in Africa between 1948 and 2008, they found that the holding of multi-party election, in particular post the Cold War, is associated with “a substantial reduction in the probability of civil war onset”, debunking the neo-liberal justification for not holding election in potentially conflict situation, such as Ethiopia.
4.4 In the concrete Ethiopian context, it is patently true that the vast majority of political parties and Regions in Ethiopia, apart from a small minority of One-Nation, unitarian politicians, believe that the holding of the General election in free, fair, transparent and credible way would reduce the current political and ideological impasse, reducing the prevailing social strife and political instability; and have warned that failure to hold the Election will further exacerbate them rather than reduce them. Moreover, we have a clear precedent in that the prospect of a Referendum in Sidama, even under condition of civil strife and Military Command Post (effectively a state of emergency in the Region including Sidama), has reduced the prospect of violence; whereas refusal would have had much explosive consequence of violence including armed clashes.
- Historical Precedents
5.1 The historical precedents are that national general elections are more often held rather than postponed during and under conditions of cataclysmic wars, civil wars or natural disasters. The most famous are the Presidential election in the US in 1864, where Abraham Lincoln was re-elected, amidst a most cataclysmic civil war that raged between 1861 and 1865, claiming a total causalities of over 1 million people including 620,000 deaths. Similarly, a US Presidential election was held in 1944, where Franklin D. Roosevelt was re-elected for the fourth time, when the country was fighting in many fronts including against the Nazis in Europe and Africa and the Japanese Militarists in the Far East. The country lost 418,500 personnel as the result of the WW2. Similarly, elections were regularly held (in much less adverse conditions) in the US during the Korean War in 1952 and the Vietnam War during the 1960 and 1970s.
5.2 Similarly, elections were held in most of the British Commonwealth, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand during the WW2, but were postponed in 1940 in Britain due to the eminent invasion of the country (the Battle of Britain) by Nazi Germany. Elections were held in 1945, though, before the conclusion of the War as Japan was still at war with UK. Even then, all the parties consented and a Power Sharing National Government was in power during the War.
5.3 In more recent times, elections were regularly held in Israel during the many periods where the country was at war with neighbouring Arab countries. Syria, Libya and Afghanistan held elections, notwithstanding their credibility, under even the most onerous conditions of war and massive internal displacement.
- Ethiopia also held regular elections during the last 27 years under conditions of war, or “No-War, No-Peace”, or major national disasters.
- The planned Referendum in Sidama, even under a Military Command Post, sets a new precedent for Ethiopia.
- What is to be done?
6.1 The Government is undermining the fundamental principle of Multi-National Federalism with a view to establishing a totalitarian (Medemer), hegemonist (chauvinist) and unitarian (Anti-federalist) state. In the PM’s stratagem, the postponement of the General Election and the breaking-down/merger of the “EPRDF” are critical, tactical components.
6.2 Democratic Federalist must expose this stratagem through political, ideological and legal instruments and arguments to the contrary. Moreover, they must strive to form strategic democratic federalist alliances to safe guard self-determination, democracy and federalism.
6.3 Representatives of the Regions in the House of Representatives and the House of Federation must formally challenge the Executive to make an official statement and a commitment regarding whether the General Election is to be held as scheduled or otherwise. It is to be recalled that parliamentary questions submitted by the representatives of the Tigray Region to the PM during his most recent presence in the House of Representatives were deliberately suppressed. This is nothing but the repression of nationalities’ voices.
6.4 The Regions must consider the option of challenging the Executive through the House of Representatives or the House of Federation, or the Federal Supreme Court pertaining to the intention and preparedness of the Executive to conduct the General Election.
6.5 Yet, the most effective and sure way of addressing the cardinal nature of the General Election, in particular in view of the monumental danger and implications of the postponement of the General Election - which can result in illegitimate Parliament and Federal and Regional Governments without mandate from the electorates - they must renew their electoral mandates and legitimacy regionally and federally by conducting General Elections in their Regions. This is a must and is a steadfast and legal expression of self-determination. The regional parliaments must pass laws including establishing Regional Electoral Boards, which should ensure that multi-party elections are held in the Regions freely, fairly, transparently and credibly. This is absolutely crucial and is in line with Article 52, Sub-Article 1 and 2 that determine the powers and functions of states. In addition, Article 39 could be invoked, which sanctions Regions rights to self-determination including and up to secession. In this case, for the purpose of exercising self-determination by electing their regional and federal representatives.
6.6 Democrats, federalists and citizens in the Regions must have the legal, political and moral authority and courage to assert their rights as per the letter and spirit of the Preamble of the FDRE Constitution, which reads “We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia form the Federal Union”, and Article 8 on the Sovereignty of the People stipulating that: (i) “All sovereignty power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia”; (ii) “the Constitution is an expression of their sovereignty”; and (iii) that “their sovereignty shall be expressed through their representatives elected in accordance with the Constitution and through their direct democratic participation”. It is time to act resolutely and decisively!