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The endless cycle of infighting and disintegration of Ethiopia's opposition parties

Tigrai Online August 25, 2013
By Fisseha (PhD)

A month hardly passes without a news about a quarrel in the opposition parties. However, recently, such stories flooded the media in a manner unprecedented since the 2005-2007 infighting and disintegration of the CUD/Kinijit coalition.

Engineer Hailu Shawel's party, AEUP, is divided into half a dozen factions in a more than year long wearisom and intense infighting and frequently shifting of positions by the senior members.

The endless cycle of infighting and disintegration of Ethiopia's opposition parties
A month hardly passes without a news about a quarrel in the opposition parties. However, recently, such stories flooded the media in a manner unprecedented since the 2005-2007 infighting

The newly formed formed Semayawi(Blue) party has started to see resignation of founding members who held seats in the leadership organs of the party.

UDJ/Andinet party demoted its wel-known head of organizational and partty affairs department Eng. Zeleke Redi - after he and the Chairman Negasso Giddaa, the dep/Chairman Asrate Tase and the party newsletter engaged in a protracted exchange accusations in public. Another dep/Chairman of the party Seyee Abraha uncermonially left the party and took a job at the UN.

The Medrek coalition is heading to its long overdue funeral. Andinet/UDJ hardly participated in Medrek's public activities in the past few months, after washing Medrek's dirty laundry in public and as a result recieving a rebuke from the rest of the Medrek coalition member parties.

In an apparent attempt to disguise this state of conflict and disintegration, UDJ/Andinet is issuing statement with the so-called "the 33" group of unknown and nominal parties.

Semayawi party chairman jutifiably called all opposition parties useless and not worth the name "party". Though, Semayawi itself is no better. In reaction to the remark, the group of nominal parties ex-communicated Semayawi party from their informal and rarely active groupings.

The details of the sorry state of the opposition parties add little value as the quarrel and disinntegration are symptoms of a major critical problem. Therefore, it is in order to diagnose the underlying problems in light of the main issues of African opposition parties as expounded by researchers.

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.

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However, opposition party leaders have long complained that government harassment prevented them from competing effectively against the EPRDF. But it is the weakness of the opposition parties themselves that undermined their ability to pose an electoral threat. Divided over questions of ideology and strategy, opposition parties repeatedly failed to articulate clear alternatives to EPRDF policies or to reach out to voters in an organized way. And they had failed to forge and sustain broad-based coalitions on at least four different occasions since 1993.

Even in Botswana, a country which is known for having the longest surviving African multi-party system, the dominant party controlled the parliament and ruled the country since independence. These landslide victories and the one-party hegemony observed in many transitional democracies in Africa are partly due to the weaknesses and the fragmentation of the democratic actors, which are organized as opposition political parties.

The failure of opposition parties in Ethiopia is in many aspects similar to many African opposition parties. Many scholars have examined the weaknesses of opposition parties in Africa. For instance, Van de Walle and Butler [45, p.15] remarked that “African political parties are plagued by weak organizations, low level of institutionalization, and weak links to the society they are supposed to represent.”

Ethiopian opposition parties often had no constituencies, elaborated political programmes, interaction with the populace and financial transparency were non-existent, internal party democracy was often unknown and many opposition parties actually disbanded between elections. I will scrutinize the major weaknesses of Ethiopian opposition parties in detail.

  1. Fragmentation

The fragmentation of Ethiopian opposition parties is probably unseen anywhere in the world.

Some parties had broken up to many pieces and even the break-up parties further broken into many. If one tries to draw a diagram of the fragmentation, he ends up with a diagram that can be mistaken with a network markating scheme.

Intra-party friction leads to fragmentation as the cases of the CUD. Intra-party conflicts not only further fragmented opposition parties, but also greatly damaged their image, and frustrated the hopes of millions of people who voted for them in 2005.

It is interesting to note that the major opposition parties wasted most of their time fighting each other and were busy in intra-party power struggle.

Therefore, the major opposition parties such as the ONC (Oromo National Congress), the AEUP (All Ethiopia Unity Party) and the major opposition coalitions, i.e. the CUD and the UEDF (United Ethiopian Democratic Front) engaged themselves in very destructive intra-party conflicts that threatened their own survival.

  1. Personal parties 

Many of the opposition parties in Ethiopia are established around individual personalities.

According to Ake [70, p.11], “The democratization of Africa has focused on the power elite, who are the natural enemies of democracy……..their involvement in democracy movements is mainly a tactical manoeuvre. It is a response to internal contradictions and power struggles within a group for whom democracy is essentially a means to power.”

“Personalistic” opposition parties, which usually rely on “the charismatic appeal of single individual” lack structures extending beyond the national executive, and decision making is highly centralized.

This is why opposition parties raise all kinds of “reasons” not to participate in local elections. These kinds of parties face split whenever another rising star challenges the founder or the leader of the party.

This is one of the reasons for the presence of many fragmented political parties in Ethiopia.

For instance, CUD, disintegrated into many factions due to a leadership problem and the Diaspora Ethiopians’ too much interference in the day-to-day activities of the party.

  1. Failure to Produce Alternative Policy

One of the chronic problems of the opposition parties is their failure to forward distinct policy alternatives to the voters.

They are weak in terms of developing a comprehensive political vision. As I have tried to indicate, political parties which are led by single individual leaders usually do not offer alternative policies to the voters, but emphasize the ability of the opposition party leaders to run the government “better” than the incumbent party and the government leaders.

These types of political parties that do not offer policy alternatives do not lead to party stability over time.

If ruling politicians are failing the people, it is the responsibility of the opposition to step in, in a credible, robust, articulate, clear and coherent manner, to provide alternative policy options on how to deal with the challenges that confront the country.

If opposition parties intend to be considered by the majority of Ethiopians, they should offer their alternative policy and explain to the people how they would do things differently.

In other words, they should explain their policy alternatives for education, healthcare, children, the elderly, unemployment, poverty, agriculture, and so on. 

  1. Lack of Long History and Experience

Most of the political parties are short-lived and do not have long history and experience.

Therefore, the voters do not get a chance to evaluate opposition parties’ achievements over time.

Moreover, the most important weakness of the African political parties mentioned over and over by many researchers is the fact that they are seldom grown out of big social movements, and are the creation of ambitious individuals.

The EPRDF’s mass movement experience and its long history of achievements dwarfs the stature of the opposition in the face of the electorate.

  1. Lack of Mass Base

Many of the opposition parties lack proper contact with t women unions, labor unions, and peasants associations.

Therefore, they are not mass-based. Their leaders usually spend the five years gap furthering their business and education instead of working to create a base.

Therefore, their customary visit of rural areas and farmers once in five years to ask for votes fails to win hearts and minds.

  1. Weak financial position and foreign funding

In emerging democracies, foreign funding (including diaspora) is sometimes viewed as an attempt to influence the outcome of national elections and the directions of political parties.

First of all, foreign funding is regarded as something that violates the basic principle of democracy, i.e., the election of representatives should express the political preferences of the politically enfranchised citizens.

Secondly, there is a general case that the political parties’ dependence on external funding might limit or decrease their attachment to their electorate.

In other words, the political parties’ connection with the electorate will be less as long as they continue depending on foreign aid.

Moreover, if the political parties’ connection with the electorate decreases, they no longer reflect the view of the electorate because their leaders start to live comfortable life thanks to the foreign aid.

Thirdly, the political party leaders could be turned into authoritarian leaders and might follow a monolithic leadership.

As the result they could refuse to entertain criticisms from fellow party members fearing the exposure of their corrupt practices.

Fourthly, foreign funding could also lead in to the formation of the so called “party entrepreneurs” i.e. individuals who establish political parties to tap internationally available funds.

Therefore, many ambitious individuals would be encouraged to establish political parties as a short cut to rapid personal wealth. This condition could lead to the further fragmentation of political parties: a development hardly conducive to democratic consolidation.

Therefore, at present, many observers feel that foreign funding is both unethical and counterproductive.

We can conclude that “if democracy is to be entrenched in Ethiopia, it needs to be strengthened from with in. Foreign funding is usually tainted and it tries to impose models from outside.

  1. They frequently employ election boycotts

It is very common in Africa where opposition parties participate in elections that are not “free and fair”.

On the other hand, there are many instances where the opposition parties boycott elections even if the elections are declared “free and fair” just to discredit the incumbents, and when they realize that their chance of winning is very low.

In the past opposition parties in Africa had boycotted elections because of various factors: 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 Sudan (2000), due to “the state of emergency” the government imposed”, in Ethiopia (1992,1995), due to the harassment of the opposition candidates” and so on.

Most of the election boycotts in Ethiopia are not effective due to the failure of the opposition parties action to match with the voters perception of the election. 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 accepted the election results with protests in two-thirds of the elections in the Sub- Saharan Africa. It is interesting to note that even in those elections, which were declared “free and fair” the losers accepted the result only 40% of the time.

With all these structural, tactical and ideological flaws, it is inconceivable how  Ethiopia's opposition parties can become a real player in the national politics and put the ruling party in check.

These problems cannot be solved by scratching the ego of these misguided opposition parties and their unproductive leaders, rather it requires an honest introspection and review of flawed ideologies and organizational cultures.