Viewpoint

Breaking an electoral suicide pact

Ethiopia’s bitterly opposed political factions needs to build trust rather than rush into potentially divisive elections next year

In early August, the EPRDF Executive Committee announced that national elections will go ahead as scheduled next year. This means Ethiopia is about to enter a highly charged competition for power, with polling day perhaps less than nine months away.

Is this a wise move, or foolish bravado?

Less than two years ago, Ethiopia was on the brink of implosion. It arguably escaped this fate due to the reformist wing of EPRDF, dubbed Team Lemma, making demands of protesters their own and taking power via an alliance of the Oromo and Amhara parties. Subsequently, Ethiopia entered a new era, as abuses of the past were corrected.

But optimism quickly dissipated, and a new phase of bitter political contest began. Groups previously classed “terrorist organizations” like the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ginbot 7 returned and new parties such as the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) emerged. Political manoeuvring became more assertive, and, in some cases, extremist, as in Amhara with Asaminew Tsige and elements with ties to the OLF.

Some of these groups, such as OLF and NaMA, have irreconcilable agendas. There is no consensus on many issues, including, critically, the legitimacy of the 1995 constitution and the ethnic federal structure. Old debates—over regional boundaries, national languages, and identity—have re-emerged with vengeance. New aspirations revitalized long-simmering challenges.

Making the situation particularly grave is the recent history. After waves of protests and lethal state repression since 2014, Ethiopia more resembles a country that just emerged from civil war than a healthy democracy. Despite last year’s opening of the political space, the country only seemed to sink deeper into a quagmire.

While the same coalition remains in power, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration differs from the former hardline EPRDF, particularly in its liberal disposition and in terms of where power resides. For the first time in Ethiopia’s history, central power stems from Oromia. This is revolutionary indeed.

Yet, despite this change, the old EPRDF is not dead yet. The coalition remains a self-declared vanguard, pursuing revolutionary democracy via authoritarian practices. Compromise with opposition forces is antithetical to this approach. This has major implications for how the country moves forward, not least regarding elections.

Timing

Even though Ethiopia held polls every five years since 1995, only one was competitive. Elections therefore have a vital dual role in marking a potential transition to competitive democracy and also a move from partly violent to overwhelmingly peaceful political contest. The question is whether the current fragility—characterized by elevated social mistrust, weak democratic institutions, disorganized opposition parties, and regional insecurities—should be exposed to the pressure cooker of an election.

For people to be empowered, polls must be held. But elections are not necessarily appropriate for resolving fundamental differences. Lencho Leta, a respected Oromo opposition veteran, has stated, “forging a democratic political order would fail as long as absolutist positions continue to confront each other”. Rushed elections are not the way to build a consensus on whether, for example, Ethiopia should have ethnic or non-ethnic federalism. Given volatile polarized pluralism, an election will produce winners and losers, may well increase divergence, and could lead to conflict.

Undoubtedly, polls can stabilize a fragile state, but that does not mean holding them as soon as possible is desirable. The experiences of countries including Angola, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Nepal, show that the timing of a post-conflict election is a decisive factor in determining whether peace or conflict prevails. One major negative consequence of an untimely election is that it increases the probability that one or more parties will reject unfavorable results.

Ethiopia has yet to pass the acid test of democracy

Benjamin Reilly in Elections in Post-Conflict Scenarios: Constraints and Dangers identifies three major factors that influence elections held in fragile countries: timing; the governance of elections; and the type of parties, whether they are, for example, personalized or ethnic-based. According to Reilly, “ill-timed, badly designed or poorly run election can actually undermine the broader process of democratization.”

Dawn Brancati and Jack Snyder agreed in Rushing to the Polls: The Causes of Premature Postconflict Elections, as they argue, “…elections held soon after wars end, when political institutions remain weak, are associated with an increased likelihood of a return to violence.” And, writing in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Alon Ben-Meir, similarly opined that, “premature elections could usher in a period of continued political instability punctuated by violence, or introduce new totalitarian regimes that would assume power under the pretext of maintaining order and stability.”

Ethiopia does not have a political culture characterized by democratic elections and transitions, and nor does it have the requisite strong institutions, including a capable independent judiciary. The country also has yet to pass what Merera Gudina, chair of the Oromo Federalist Congress, once called the acid test of multiparty democracy––the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. In the long durée, if we consider the Abyssinian polity prior to the formation of the modern Ethiopian state, conflicts during transitions were often severe.

In the modern era, the open 2005 election led to a contested outcome and violence that claimed around 200 lives. Arguably, what awaits following an election next year may pale by comparison. Fifteen years before, the ruling party refused to concede defeat, leading to a more authoritarian grip on power. The forthcoming elections, if held too soon, could deepen divisions and harden extreme views, leading to a total breakdown in order.

Guerrilla habits

Another factor that should be considered is the nature of the opposition. For example, OLF has been engaged in armed struggle for self-determination of the Oromo people for decades. It is less than a year now since its leadership joined the political process. In such a short period, it is difficult to transform from liberation front to political party, especially when, with an electoral board and electoral rules in flux, it has not yet been registered. The fact there are still OLF-linked elements who have not adopted peaceful struggle, and whose relationship with OLF is not clear, suggests that it is not yet a cohesive democratic party. This complicates the situation in Oromia, where it would compete with the Prime Minister’s ODP.

A number of other former rebel organizations recently entered peaceful politics, including an OLF faction led by Abba Naga Jaarra, as well as the Oromo National Party headed by General Kemal Galchu. In Somali region, the Ogaden National Liberation Front is also trying to transform itself into a contending party. Come election time, will former rebels eschew violence as a means to an end? Are these organizations ready to compromise and abide by the rules?

The proliferation of parties, to around 140 currently, also presents a challenge. Conducting an election before consolidation prevents fusion among similarly minded organizations. The plethora of parties confuses the electorate, making it difficult to reach consensus on major issues and effectively challenge EPRDF.

An EPRDF supporter at a 2010 campaign rally in Ambo, Oromia; May 23, 2010; Petterik Wiggers

The constitution requires a national census to be conducted every ten years, not least because an accurate electoral register requires reliable demographic data. However, parliamentarians decided in June to again postpone the count for one more year, due to organizational challenges linked to political and environmental insecurity It is risky for a government that is not able to conduct a census to push ahead with an election, which requires more intensive preparation and has potentially much more serious consequences.

The elephant in the room, however, is prevailing instability, perhaps the most significant hurdle for peaceful elections next year. Security remains poor in districts including West Wollega and Guji in Oromia, the entire Southern Nations, and some areas in Benishangul-Gumuz and Amhara. Operations to resettle internally displacement persons are still ongoing in locations where recent conflicts have supposedly died down.

These areas are either outside the effective control of the government or under de facto states of emergency. Even if such hot spots could be pacified swiftly, it is doubtful a fair and accurate poll could be held in areas recently under military control, as freedom of expression, association, and assembly may not have existed for sufficient time prior to polling.

Bad losers

If any major party does not graciously concede an election this would represent a major blow to the reboot of democracy in Ethiopia. But it does not end there—a challenge to the election result could quickly descend into violence. This would be dire in Ethiopia, where acute ethnic rifts are rife, and a weakened state security apparatus is already stretched.

Under current conditions, an unwillingness of some of the many parties to accept defeat looms large. Academics such as Reilly believe that a major factor leading to parties not conceding is fear that a change of power could lead to fundamental shifts in state policy. In Ethiopia, there are huge differences on key issues, including over the type of governing system, and who runs the capital. Even on symbolic matters, such as what the flag should be and who the nation’s historical heroes are, there is little consensus.

Opposition parties may not want to concede

Moreover, political power is tied to material interests. Not only political appointees, but the overwhelming majority of senior civil servants, and even lower bureaucrats and kebele administrators, are ruling party loyalists. In a country where the state is the biggest employer, one can imagine that losing such positions would threaten not only many livelihoods, but also the social power base of the ruling party. This enhances the possibility that EPRDF may not simply accept defeat.

This problem is not confined to the ruling party. Opposition parties may also not want to concede. A sense of entitlement exists among groups that have fought the EPRDF regime for many years. As a result of their sacrifice, organizations like OLF expect power, at least in their western Oromia stronghold, as do Ezema, the closest to a successor to CUD from 2005, in urban areas. There is also fear that if defeated they may be out of contention for power for many years to come. The OLF leadership may well believe that because EPRDF is currently weakened, early elections are an opportune moment to remove it from its perch.

Disproportional representation

Recent history suggests that EPRDF may strive to hold onto power. Trust in the incumbent, as well as some returning parties, remains shaky. A thorough confidence-building process and a legally binding agreement between all stakeholders should therefore be organized to agree ground rules. The recent political parties’ code of conduct does not appear adequate, as it is neither sufficiently inclusive nor comprehensive. Ethiopia is a country where genuine sharing of power has seldom occurred. What would happen, for instance, if OLF wins a regional majority in Oromia, while EPRDF takes the federal parliament? The handling of these types of risky scenarios must be discussed.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that EPRDF itself is fragmented. Recent acrimony between the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) is a case in point. But such internal hostilities are not limited to those souring relations. TPLF recently accused the Prime Minister of eroding the constitutional order and vowed it would not let the country descend into anarchy. How can we hope for the electoral board to conduct an exceptionally democratic election in a country where such a divided ruling coalition exists, and is still deeply entangled with the state apparatus?

EPRDF remains entwined with the state

EPRDF fragility does not end here, as there is also the issue of power-sharing between constituent parties. For example, currently, TPLF, which represents a region of six million people, has an equal number of representatives in party committees as ODP, which represents 34 million people. This imbalance has been long-questioned and is still subject to debate. Abiy’s answer appears to be for EPRDF parties and their affiliates to merge into one organization, but there is little time for this, and some parties, or faction within parties, may balk at such radical reform.

The more important question, though, relates to the party–state relationship. EPRDF remains entwined with the state. Would it continue utilizing the bureaucracy and government media for campaigning? Political organizations should come up with a detailed plan and agreement which would allow them to build trust in each other and level the playing field. If they do not, the fairness of the outcome may well be questioned.

This election is occurring without any change from the first-past-the post, which enabled the mono-party system in the first place. It does not seem that this ‘winner takes all’ approach is suitable for Ethiopia. Instead, as suggested back in 2016 by the president, some proportional representation would help to ensure opposition representation. Or perhaps a consociational model should be introduced to enable consensual power-sharing at the national level. Right now, there is just not enough time to engage in such important discussions before polling day. The upcoming election is critical, and instead of rushing it, the key is to institute an electoral system suited to Ethiopia’s federal context.

Legitimacy

The push to hold post-conflict elections soon usually comes from the incumbent, as it wants to hold them before competitors can adequately prepare. The Ethiopian case is no exception. The EPRDF leadership, despite its divisions, is well aware that the opposition is divided and that it is better organized. But opposition parties may reject the outcome if EPRDF claims an overwhelming majority, as in 2010 and 2015.

In many ways, we have reached a stage where it has become difficult to talk about EPRDF as a solid coalition. And on this issue, TPLF pushed the other parties hard to maintain the election schedule. This is probably because Tigray is relatively peaceful, the party does not want to give its regional opponents time and space, and postponing the election would be major affront to a constitution that TPLF considers itself the primary guardian of.

One party is in for a rude awakening

To be fair, there are valid self-interested reasons why EPRDF might want to hold elections as scheduled. Restoring legitimacy is a primary concern. The protests since 2014 and major reshuffles in government since 2018 eroded EPRDF’s legitimacy further. Its functionaries therefore want to reestablish it as soon as possible.

Rescheduling elections may also send a negative impression to the international community that the country is fragile, or backsliding to authoritarianism. The government may argue that this may harm the country’s image and have a significant impact on foreign investment. Moreover, there are legal hurdles to postponing, as the constitution provides no clear guidance on the procedure.

From among the main contenders, the ONLF and OLF have the same stance, despite not being registered. OLF seems convinced that it has good prospects of winning in Oromia if elections are held soon. The leadership is very likely to believe that OLF has the largest number of followers in the region, and it also counts on the legitimacy deficit of ODP due to its past practices. But under Team Lemma, ODP is also confident, meaning one party is in for a rude awakening.

Timely transition

In developed democracies that have gone through many electoral cycles, opposition parties are not enemies of the incumbent, but responsible participants that may form the next government. In this case, all actors should remember that Ethiopia has rarely had a peaceful transition of power, let alone following a vote. Key to a peaceful election is trust between major political organizations; and time is needed to build that trust.

There are deep-seated divisions amongst ethnic groups, and with its politically active young population, Ethiopia is a highly complex country to govern. That said, in spite of everything, the nation could be on the cusp of something great. If reforms are carefully handled, it has a bright future of transforming into a more democratic society. But if it is not handled carefully, it could prove to have been on the cusp of an abyss.

The country’s reformed political leadership and newly forming opposition should consider agreeing a longer road-map to elections—perhaps looking west to Sudan for inspiration—which provides the necessary time for wide-ranging discussions and institutional reforms. This could lay the foundations for free, fair, and peaceful polls.

After all, elections are not to be toyed with—and nor should they be a suicide pact.

Query or correction? Email us

Editors: Jonah Wedekind, William Davison

Main photo: Ginbot 7 supporters at a rally in Addis Ababa celebrating the return of the movement to Ethiopia; September 9, 2018; Charlie Rosser

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

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About the author

Olaana Abbaaxiiqi

Olaana is a lawyer who writes on Ethiopian and Oromo issues. He lives in the U.S. and uses a pen name for work-related reasons.

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5 Comments

  • I couldn’t agree more with this succinctly written essay. Job well done Olaana! The main issue for me is in how you could postpone the election without violating the constitution. Even if they amend the constitution, it will definitely set a bad precedence.

  • It seems that the current situation of the country is well defined on the text. However, the worst thing is the fact that there has not been democratic culture practiced in the country. In the current situation, it is much easier to observe serious hostilities among the parties than civilized practices. This has been taking place for decades, and this not a mere perception at present. The reality is as you have mentioned it all above. Therefore, unless it is corrected wisely, and weather election is held or postponed, it is quite difficult to guess the country’s post election fate right now. The government should take the atmost wise political measures and address careful decisions that would please the oppositions and save the great country primarily without delay.
    Thank you.

  • Is It running the capital or claiming it ? One thing that united all the Oromo parties so far seven of them is claiming Addis Ababa as the capital of their Oromo state or future republic.

    Davison on his analysis has not given serious attention to the politics of Addis Ababa.

    Abiy Ahmed early support he got from Addis Ababa residents 6 million of them evaporated after he threatened Baldaras a civic organization led by Eskinde Nega. The Diaspora agreed with the residents of Addis and Abiy support in Diaspora is in single digit from its 99% support a year ago.

    The EZEMA party is a non factor in urban Ethiopia because of their unqualified support for Abiy Ahmed.

    On this year election EPRDF and its ally like EZEMA will loose in Tigray, Amhara, Gambella, Afar and South.

    Abiy and his allies will win in Somali and might get 50% of vote in the Oromo State.

    There will not be a majority to win parliament even if TPLF support goes to Abiy In the last minute of negotiation. What next ?? Military take over because of failed election ??