Elections in End Times

Political theory, so often in our times either synoptic musings about essentialized principles locked in a Manichaean death struggle—collectivism and individualism, objectivism and relativism, right and obligation, freedom and constraint—or ideological commitments dressed up to look like ineluctable deductions from inescapable premises, needs to get a firmer grip on the hard particularities of the present moment…

Clifford Geertz, Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics

But between revolution and counterrevolution, empire and nationalism, communism and capitalism, there was also another domain, that of reform. Often beleaguered, beaten, and overshadowed by utopian Titans, this was a realm of purposive and often nonconsensual, and therefore conflictive, change whose pursuit aimed not to perfect humanity, but only to improve it.

Jeremy Adelman, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman

Within a few hours on June 22, Ethiopia was rocked by the assassinations of regional leaders and federal military officers in Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said they were part of a thwarted coup led by then Amhara security boss Asaminew Tsige, who was released in February 2018 after a December 2017 decision by the ruling coalition to ease extreme political pressures via an amnesty.

Detractors of Ethiopia’s experiment with multinational federalism did not hesitate to attribute it causally to Amhara nationalism, and thus a direct outcome of ethno-regionalism. However, that flies in the face of the fact that Asaminew and his proud Amhara allies wanted to dismantle chunks of the federal settlement; therefore, we could just as well argue it was caused by members of formerly privileged communities that reject sharing power and their former territory with the historically marginalized. Instead, a firmer analysis is that the tragedies were more a result of the bungled political and security sector reforms of the last year; a process dubbed moving towards democracy by the West’s finest media establishments.

A Brigadier-General sentenced to life in prison for orchestrating a previous coup ten years ago was released on pardon and his military ranks and privileges restored. He was then named chief of security of Amhara where he was empowered and endowed to oversee the recruitment and training of thousands of special forces, while not hiding his revanchist claims against Tigray, engaging openly in anti-Oromo rhetoric, and flattening Gumuz villages.

The TPLF Central Committee could not ignore these salient facts, which only reinforced several years of anti-TPLF activity by Amhara’s rulers. The exchange prompted by the Asaminew debacle saw the ERPDF enter the modern era of communications, as Tigray and Amhara’s ruling parties shot scalding statements at each other like bona fide social media warriors. This belated airing of the EPRDF’s filthy linen further buffeted Ethiopian politics, threatening to send the EPRDF-era into a tailspin.

So, whither Abiy’s pledge to hold for transformative elections in 10 months’ time?

Back on June 10, the Prime Minister made a surprise visit to Aksum in Tigray where he told residents in a town hall meeting that “holding elections isn’t an obligation. There are countries around the world that didn’t hold elections for 20 or 30 years.” The reluctant democrats he had in mind were presumably in nearby Eritrea, which he brought out from the cold a year ago, and whose autocrat he has embraced. It is ruled by a tyrant who has shelved its constitution since its writing, held no elections, banned free press and opposition, allowed close comrades to perish in jail, and won’t end the indefinite national service put in place since war with Ethiopia in 1998, even after the rapprochement.

If that sort of attitude displayed by Abiy towards democratic processes, coupled with assassinations immediately classed as a coup and the procrastination-induced instability in Southern Nations, indicates an intention to postpone 2020 polls due to insecurity, Ethiopia’s fledgling democracy is in retreat. Regardless, the international community continues to shower the so-called reformist leader with accolades, as he pays lip service to liberal democratic aspirations that may well end up solidifying as a still impoverished, still semi-authoritarian Ethiopia—but one that is decisively Oromo-dominated.

Another factor in Ethiopia’s current conundrum is the delayed national census, which, although not a precondition for holding elections next year, is important in at least two respects. First, the allocation of seats in the House of Federation, the parliamentary upper chamber, ensures minority representation but is otherwise based on population. Second, redrawing the House of Peoples’ Representatives constituency map depends on the count. Ethiopia’s 547 constituencies have not been modified since they were first ‘drawn round’ communities in 1995, during which time the population has more than doubled. There are understandable concerns around the census, given how many of Ethiopia’s flashpoints have a demographic glow, but twice postponing the census, a key constitutionally stipulated democratic event, arguably serves the purpose of softening up the public for delaying another, the election.

Also around two months ago, celebrated American public intellectual Francis Fukuyama visited Addis Ababa where he emphasized in a public lecture that Ethiopia needs democracy; the trip was paid for by a U.S. organization that promotes private enterprise. Fukuyama created controversy in 1992 with The End of History and the Last Man, synthesizing Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s thoughts, and predicated on a marked expansion of democracy across the world since the 1970s. The formative influence on his reading of Hegel comes from Alexandre Kojeve through Fukuyama’s own teacher the late Allan Bloom, who introduced Kojeve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit to the English-speaking world.

EPRDF sought legitimacy through development

Relatively few will care much about Fukuyama’s ungainly parachute into Ethiopian affairs — he admitted he’d never set foot in this alien land before — but his remarks were far less astute than the ‘end of history’ thesis he’s endlessly unfairly maligned for by confused critics. Fukuyama actually correctly identified the direction of universal history and its twin driving forces: “economics” and “the struggle for recognition” — but in his Addis Ababa address he failed to locate Ethiopia’s particular location in the teleology.

If Fukuyama was right in pointing out the general direction towards liberal democracy, Larry Diamond has shown it is hardly linear. In his latest book, Ill Winds, he warns that democracy is retreating everywhere, and the foundations of democratic culture are eroding both in the U.S. and overseas. He takes pains to update his original article “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession”, written a quarter of a century after the publication of Fukuyama’s original 1989 essay. Diamond’s general point is that many more countries have seen their freedom decrease than increase since 2007, reversing the post–Cold War trend.

Some might argue that postponement of Ethiopia’s elections would not constitute democratic regression because, after all, they claim, the 2015 election was a sham. They can even support their stance with political science scholarship. Thomas Flores and Irfan Nooruddin in their Elections in Hard Times argued: “Over the past two decades, academic research has confirmed …that many of the elections held across the developing world since the end of the Cold War were at best dubious in their commitment to the best practices for protecting electoral integrity.”

The problem, however, is that they took Ethiopia’s elections in 2015 for the archetypal exercise in mock democracy, “where the ruling party won all the seats in an overwhelming show of dominance secured by harassing opposition figures and suppressing independent civil society.” They opined: “Common sense tells us that elections such as that of Ethiopia in 2015 will do little to further the cause of democracy in that country…And therefore cleaner elections should yield a greater democratic dividend, all else equal.” They are right in saying this, inasmuch as their assertion is tautological.

The academics are also right to express serious misgivings about the election. After all, EPRDF not only controlled all seats, but in terms of votes, 95 percent went to the front and its affiliates. (However, it was not exceptionally one-sided: in Egypt’s 2014 elections Abdel Fetah al-Sisi won 97 percent of the votes.) Yet regardless of the popular vote, when any ruling party controls 100 percent of the seats it magnifies a glaring democratic deficit, even if the domination is based on 51 percent of the ballots cast. The lopsided outcome was born of the same control-freakery, greed, and arrogance that generally militated against the introduction of gradual reforms required to forestall the type of radical demands that brought Abiy to power.

From a strategic perspective, the 100 percent victory, as Terrence Lyons and Leonardo Arriola rightly observed, made more sense, as it was also a way of sending “the message to potential rebels that there is only one game in town and that to imagine otherwise would be futile.”  They explain cogently the 2015 elections in terms of what they call “the retrenchment strategy.” The incumbent decided to retrench, in violation of Meles’s internal renewal policy.

The situation is somewhat explained by the fact that even had EPRDF decided to cede ground to the opposition by letting them win some districts, the process would not have been easy since each constituent party wanted to maintain ethno-regional hegemony. All the four members of the EPRDF coalition and their allies are therefore complicit in retrenching without leaving room for the upward mobility of EPRDFites and oppositionists. Ultimately, the claims of managed democracy are fair, as EPRDF sought to garner legitimacy not through elections, but through development. The academics, however, were wrong to conclude that “[t]he regime is thus unlikely to be threatened by an internal coup.” That is exactly what happened after Abiy Ahmed’s meteoric rise from entrepreneurial securocrat to liberalism’s savior.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with Tigray’s leader Debretsion Gebremichael; June 11 Aksum; PMO

Fast-forwarding half a decade, the issue now is not so much semi-authoritarian methods of political control, it is impending chaos. There is solid scholarship that calls into question the wisdom of holding elections during violent transitions, while holding founding elections is clearly an integral part of democratic emergence. However, that is not the case with Ethiopia right now. The founding elections took place in 1995. The upcoming ones will be the sixth since the new constitutional dispensation began a quarter of a century before. The outcome of these polls would be democratic consolidation, not emergence; although it will indeed be a landmark poll if EPRDF parties do not compete as a front for the first time. But not holding the elections as mandated by law will only amount to what Larry Diamond calls “democracy demotion” or “recession”.

Politically speaking, if the administration decides not to hold the elections, it would incur a legitimacy deficit, thereby inviting all kinds of insurgency, while there will also be a risk of moves to secession by members of the federation, and thus a return to civil war. If the prevailing insecurity is so great as to prevent campaigning or polling, or the chances are that the elections are going to be held under conditions that may generate deeper insecurity, postponement of the elections might be the lesser of the two evils, albeit it is unclear how that is done in a manner consistent with the constitution.

As a last resort, parliament could declare a State of Emergency and suspend constitutional provisions, other than a few that are non-derogable. Another alternative course of action for extending the elections for a few months is to dissolve parliament. Art. 60 allows for dissolution before end of term—which would actually shorten the election period to only six months. If early dissolution occurs, the current government continues as a caretaker as per sub-Art. 5. And the powers of the caretaker will be limited to only “conducting the day to day affairs of government and organizing new elections.” As such, it won’t be able to enact new laws or repeal or amend any existing laws. This, however, would be a terrible move. Legal gymnastics regardless, an acceptable solution lies in politics and backroom negotiations among the main actors. Lack of a legal solution to the problem of postponement necessitates a political solution. The decision to extend should be based on broad consensus; it cannot simply be in the hands of the prime minister, his handpicked electoral board, or the legislature alone.

As I am writing, Hawassa, the capital of Southern Nations, is on lockdown by security forces after the community threatened to self-declare a Sidama state, as today marked the expiry of the one-year constitutional deadline for organizing a referendum on their demand. I can’t think of a better example of the central government’s playing fast and loose with constitutional schedules in the interests of suppressing the rights of the historically marginalized; witness also the conceit of Addis’ intelligentsia as it dismisses the Sidama’s fundamentally human desire for recognition as backward tribalism. With regards to disregard for the constitution, my fear is the same will happen to the 2020 elections.

In making such a decision, it is important to consider the positions of the TPLF, OLF and other disgruntled parties. Any decision by fiat, no matter how wise on merit, is not going to go down well. Abiy, therefore, must rethink his obvious strategy of monopolizing power, and instead attempt to involve others in a meaningful way. Any extra-constitutional alternative to elections to entrench himself in power that isn’t based on political consensus would be a highway to political hell and should be a red alert among all Ethiopians. Ultimately, it is less about the decision on whether or not to hold elections. It is the process by which the decision is made. Therefore Abiy—and the rest—need to abandon vendettas and engineer an elite consensus of sorts, at least within the EPRDF, which is going to be tricky.

Talking of vendettas, in its latest statement, the TPLF Central Committee stressed that it would be difficult for it to work with the Amhara wing of the coalition until and unless it engages in self-criticism and take responsibility for the tragic events of 22 June. It also demanded an independent investigation into the killings of its generals as well as clarity on whether EPRDF is committed to holding the 2020 elections. To make things worse, the Amhara Democratic Party responded in kind, addressing TPLF with an unofficial name. While both sides are to blame, TPLF demanded reasonably that ADP owns its mistakes. But ADP appears more interested in burning bridges—not to mention blocking roads—than building them.

This spat is symptomatic of a situation where the chairman of EPRDF has largely surrounded himself with opportunists and oppositionists. That has come at the expense of letting his own party atrophy, which has had grave security implications in the absence of consensus and efficient-decision making guiding strong state action. Of late, he seems to have begun to smell the coffee. He seems to be realizing that he is the chairman of EPRDF and not of EZEMA, and that it was a mistake to ignore his own institutional power base. The antagonists he sees in the TPLF enjoy unchallenged control of Tigray. ADP is facing challenges from the right-wing National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), which has come under siege following an accusation that some of its members and leaders were complicit in the so-called coup. Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party will make a deal or be outmaneuvered by populist ethno-regional opposition. And so Abiy is looking for alternative avenues to stay in office, not excluding an eventual alliance with Berhanu Nega’s EZEMA. After all his chemistry is better with Berhanu than Bekele Gerba.

When all things are considered, the difference the 2020 elections are going to make isn’t scalar; the choice is not between sham and clean elections. It’s another binary: the choice is between civil war and peace. Ethiopia would better hold another sham election than no election at all. Worse than the risk of elections triggering conflict is the consequences of no elections. Democracy is after all part of the culture of a polity that should grow organically rather than be imposed overnight. Postponing elections as conditions are imperfect is not democratic, it is dictatorial.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with Francis Fukuyama; June 11; PMO

As well as avoiding catastrophe arguments, there are also escaping poverty reasons for sticking to the schedule.

Showing further signs of a lack of specialism, in his lecture Fukuyama cursorily pointed out that Ethiopia lacks a national identity. But instead he should have analyzed its diverse ethnic groups’ struggle for recognition in terms of Plato’s thymos and Hegel’s desire for recognition. As he argued brilliantly in End of History, if “an understanding of the importance of the desire for recognition as the motor of history allows us to reinterpret many phenomena that are otherwise seemingly familiar to us, such as culture, religion, work, nationalism, and war,” why fall short of doing that when it comes to Ethiopia?

Maybe it isn’t familiar to Fukuyama that students of multinational federalism also trace its roots to the theory of the politics of recognition, which can in turn be sourced to GWF Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, following the tack taken by its master-interpreter, Alexandre Kojeve. He says: “All human, anthropogenetic Desire — the Desire that generates Self-Consciousness, the human reality — is, finally, a function of the desire for “recognition.” And the risk of life by which the human reality “comes to light” is a risk for the sake of such a Desire. Therefore, to speak of the “origin” of Self-Consciousness is necessarily to speak of a fight to the death for “recognition.”

The best way then to make sense of our contemporary politics is to look at its not-so-distant past through the lens of the center-periphery cleavage, as I have argued elsewhere. It is the desire for recognition as equal in worth and dignity by the diverse cultural communities that have shaped the history of modern Ethiopia, and if Fukuyama had taken the short flight to Hawassa, he could have seen it in action among the Sidama.

Ethiopia’s predicament also exposes tensions in Fukuyama’s two main areas of interest: liberal democracy and state building. Ethiopia is not close to liberal democracy, but it needs to loosen up, which is not conducive to state building. Ethiopia does not seem to have the conditions for steady growth that Fukuyama prescribes, and it does not have the capabilities or resources to immediately create them. If he identifies that national unity, the rule of law, and so the enforcement of property rights, are absent, then state-building should surely precede liberal political and economic reforms.

Practical idealism must be upheld with a vote

Now that Ethiopia’s federal settlement is threatened, after TPLF preeminence was propagated as Tigrayan totalitarianism, the government has no more space or time to be single-minded about creating them, and producing an overarching unifying identity is fraught with problems in the Ethiopian context. Yet Ethiopia is also being told to be more democratic. So how does it achieve the consensus and strength and length of government needed to create the conditions for growth? Or, if the conditions simply aren’t conducive in Ethiopia for that, what is the alternative?

Rather than fretting about a lack of homogeneity in a society still stuttering out of internal imperialism, what Ethiopia needs, therefore, is more Meles-style state building so the rule of law can be enforced and rights protected, more identity-politics analysis, and less boilerplate ‘liberal democracy now’ prescriptions. For stability’s sake, EPRDF can transform itself into a single party if it can hammer out a compromise among its constituent members so that it can situate itself better to play its role in the country’s multi-party politics amid the whirlwind of transformative change.

As well as building the meritocratic bureaucracy that the EPRDF has hitherto stunted the growth of, and which Fukuyama, and all and sundry, recommend, Ethiopia also needs to reform on both the economic and political fronts, guided by practical idealism. The agenda shouldn’t be a battlefield for ideologies. Rather than merely obsessing over identity, territory, and power, we should ask pragmatic questions about the paths that can take us towards peace, prosperity, and progress in measurable ways.

Even if it is agreed that liberal democracy cannot be challenged as the ideal form of government, it needs however to be tailored in creative ways to the needs of the people and until achievement of the ideal is possible. This isn’t far from John Dewey’s idea of democracy as he beautifully extolled in his essay Creative Democracy. American Democracy isn’t the embodiment of some pure form of the ideal of democracy. It’s part of the culture and history of an evolving polity. But this kind of practical idealism must be upheld with a vote, otherwise it is clinging to a void. The upcoming elections can be held as scheduled, and the political and economic reforms can be pursued under the less than optimal conditions post-election, if that is what the public vote for.

However, they should not be carried out posthaste to satisfy the demands of the Bretton Woods institutions.

If liberal democracy is the endpoint, multinational federalism, revolutionary democracy, and a Developmental State are transitory stages prompted by unfavorable conditions in the movement of history towards its landing zone, liberal democracy. This is also consistent with not only John Rawl’s view of liberalism, but also Meles Zenawi’s understanding of revolutionary democracy. Meles saw a strong state to maintain security and a dominant vanguard party urging development as priorities for an impoverished society. A focus on civil liberties would come later when a middle class emerged and pluralism developed.

During his time in office, his single-minded focus was therefore on economic development and transformation. Fukuyama’s end of history argument for liberal democracy as an endpoint should not be a bar to thinking about transitory arrangements. But he is apparently fixated on the notion that the only path to get to his End of History is through Abiy’s New Horizon, somehow sidestepping Meles’s Dead End. Whilst political liberalism has not yet been convincingly refuted in a decisive manner by any big thinker, Meles rightly observed that neoliberalism was a cul de sac for poor countries. So, it remains a distinct possibility that beyond Abiy’s horizon is a mirage—even if it is one studded with saplings.

Returning to the more pressing, earthy matter of the 2020 elections, there should be no administration so eager to earn legitimacy as Abiy’s, which is making sweeping reforms and preparing to privatize the commanding heights, as sketched out over the last 18 months by a bankrupt ruling coalition now on the brink of dissolution. As part of democratization, developmentalism is being sacrificed, which surely was not the plan of the remaining TPLF ideologues and their fellow revolutionary democratic travelers.

Quite apart from Ethiopia’s acute political concerns, and rather than merely trying to please everyone through vacuity in the absence of legitimacy, Abiy’s administration must embrace elections to earn a democratic mandate for his supposedly transformative agenda. But first, he has to keep the federation together.

Query or correction? Email us

Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with electoral board chair Birtukan Mideksa; Nov. 22, 2018; Office of Prime Minister

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

Related Insight

Aug. 1, Ethiopia’s Charismatic Leader: Riding the Wave of Populism or Reforming Ethnic Federalism?

Sep. 18, Domestic despair shadows Abiy’s diplomatic waltz

Jan. 10, Ethiopia’s federation needs reviving, not reconfiguring

Feb. 27, Ethiopian elite lost in electoral maze under Abiy’s gaze

June 10, From Meles’ ‘Dead End’ to Abiy’s ‘New Horizon’

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About the author

Alemayehu Weldemariam

Alemayehu has taught constitutional law and political theory at U.S. and Ethiopian universities. He served as a National Peace Advisor to the Ministry of Federal Affairs from 2010-11 and currently holds a lectureship at Mekele University School of Law.


  • …..astonishing & awesome analysis of facts …& generalization of their consequences . I wish eyes & ears in …

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  • In October 1995 a reporter John Ryle wrote a magazine article “An African Nuremberg”, a story about the trial of Derg members. In the article the author asked about “the ethnic question”. Meles said: “Things are at a crucial stage. If the reforms founder we will have a very inflammable mix of ethnic and religious problems in this country. We are trying to preempt what has happened to Yugoslavia…Liberia…Somalia.” In essence, Meles was concerned and wanted to make sure that Ethiopia does not become
    “a failed state”….The age of identity politics, the age of ethnic nationalism had arrived in Ethiopia, it had become undeniable and unavoidable…EPRDF and the current form of federalism gave Ethiopia 25 years of political stability with the focus on economic development…In Parliament recently Abiy is believed to have said that “the demand for federalism is much higher than the demand for its abandonment.” The challenge is to make it work better and continue to progress like a political evolution.

  • It was Meles Zenawi who laid the ground for TPLF plunderers – look at what happened to Development Bank, METEC, Sugar Corporation, Gambella and Benishangul fertile lands, lands surrounding urban areas in Oromia. All fell to plunders of TPLFites by design that Meles engineered. The almighty intervenned to save us from his dubious conspiracy.

  • I would like to know when will end the so called intelectuals that keep listing mayham of forgein authors to look like they are educated and above the average Ethiopian and all what they are doing is trading in the name of marginalized people but for ulterior motives and benefits not for the marginized but for their culprits that benefit form non ending ethnic confrontation. You call Herman Cohen or his versions of Ethiopian scholars they all live out of the misery of the perpetual ethnic hate and confrontation in Ethiopian society. The authors never mention that the Sidama aspirations would uproot and confiscates lands and resources not of big landowners white setllers across Africa but non Sidama small farmers living in the borders of subsistence. Who is marginalized the Sidama politician elites who already are in charge and plundering the South region budget of the farmers that the Ejeto displaces or the monks that they kill and burn alive? How these educated people could make travesty out the reality we know? The ethnic federalism that they defend staunchly has already decimated large number of ethnic minority livelihood in the Omo zone that is unheard in previous regimes both the DERG and the monarchs. I can tell you one thing humans when they develop they tend to go against nature including animals destroying ecosystems. But tribal politics literally fuels itself with ethnic cleansing and genicide. Andyes its name is tribal politics if you think your tribal kin is better than any other human no matter how henius crimes has done. And your admired Meles is one of those kind you would into the out of hell with all what was committed under his watch.

    • Injustices committed against the natives must be corrected. Now the battle is between two groups who want to see the injustices persisted and the other who want to see the injustices corrected. The emperors conquered, settled their people and claimed the lands that are not theirs’. All the shouts of chauvinists are to persist the injustices that put in place by their grandfathers. This will never come true. Finished.

    • You have a point, SLW. Many people conveniently forget that ideas and ideologies can produce perverse outcomes across places. Liberal multiculturalism is a noble thing in the West, but it has been translated in Ethiopia in a very twisted way. Conservatives (many of today’s officials who are also practising evangelicals) and brutal bandits (most of TPLF officials) have deployed liberal multiculturalism for anti-liberal and anti-multiculturalist purposes.

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