Local bosses may fill the party-sized hole in Ethiopia’s next election

Ethiopia has traditions of local self-government—could they induce voters to look at independent candidates for Parliament?

Next year’s elections in Ethiopia will be unlike the previous five polls. The ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is widely discredited, including at the grassroots. Add to that the nationwide ethnic polarisation and local micro factors and the local dimension will be critical.

Only the future will reveal if the polls will be held on time. The EPRDF has pledged that they will, although the country is still suffering from politically inspired violence, millions are unable to return to their homes and there is no date for a postponed census, which is needed to ascertain how many representatives each region should elect. If the election does take place, however, we may well see voters following traditional approaches to the appointment of leaders that could revitalise local democratic structures.

That would contradict the dominant view of Ethiopian elections, which posits that parties are the key actors. This notion rests on both international norms and observation of elections in recent decades. Even in the 2005 vote, arguably the fairest in the post-1991 federal era, with some leaders having become household names during the campaign, voters first and foremost chose a party, not its candidate. When you asked them – at least in the countryside – “For whom will you vote?” they typically responded “The bee” (the symbol of the EPRDF), “The V” (the Coalition for Unity and Democracy), and so on. When asked: “In your constituency, who represents this party?” only a tiny minority could name the candidate.

Undemocratic, indeed feudal

Few MPs are public personalities. The continuing unanimity in a Parliament monopolised by the EPRDF – even on controversial issues such as the recent electoral law that some opposition parties have contested – suggests to most outside that their elected representatives are obedient foot soldiers of their party. MPs don’t even have an office in Parliament or an assistant to help fulfil their duties.

In their constituency, they rank behind wereda (district) cabinet members and even kebele (sub-district, or ward) chairs. Few know if they are active locally, as they are de facto deprived of a local role. While usually an MP is in tune with their voters and struggles with the local administration to further the interests of their constituents, I have not yet met anybody who has used their MP to try to solve a problem. MPs are unimportant and disregarded, to the point that some complain they cannot even get meetings with the local authorities.

Unsurprisingly, the Derg era—the years 1974 to 1991—was no different in this regard for members of the National Shengo, the legislature that preceded the present parliamentary institutions. But the picture is markedly different back in the time of the last emperor, Haile Selassie, which is somewhat surprising given that most political narratives about the era describe it as undemocratic, indeed feudal.

Imperial elections

The 1955 constitution led to the election of 210 MPs in 1957. Everybody above 21 could vote, but few could stand to receive those votes: candidates had to be able to read and write—around 90 percent of Ethiopians could not—and to possess land worth about one year of Ethiopia’s average per capita income, or moveable property worth twice that amount, according to Patrick Gilkes, author of ‘The Dying Lion: Feudalism & Modernization In Ethiopia’. But notably, at the end of the imperial era, elections were freer, fairer and more contested than at any time since (except perhaps in 2005) although they were far from meeting international standards, even of the day.

Democratic power was also strictly limited. Ultimately Haile Selassie retained absolute power (“By virtue of His Imperial Blood, as well as by the anointing which he has received, the person of the Emperor is sacred, His dignity is inviolable and His power indisputable,” read Article 4 of the 1955 constitution), and Parliament was firmly within the imperial structure and never shook it. However, it couldn’t be reasonably defined as a rubber-stamp legislature, at least at the end of the period.

It was entitled to propose laws—although unable “to establish any independent power of legislative initiative”—and to veto those proposed by the executive or amend them, which it did; scrutinise the ministers’ actions, which it did; and, above all, approve or reject budgets, which it did. “Parliament’s basic position is weak… but (in the absence of a free press) is the only place where the government can openly be criticized, and where it is forced to defend its action.

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Since it stands apart from the executive, it has been able to exert pressures on it from a detached stand point, which must be unique among the dwindling number of African legislature,” said Christopher Clapham in his seminal 1969 book, ‘Haile-Selassie’s Government’. This is the converse of the present relationship between the executive and the legislative.

The most noteworthy historical contrast, however, is in the profile and role of MPs at a time when political parties were banned. You might expect that noblemen dominated the emperor’s Parliament, but they were a minority; in the lower house, 14% in 1965, mostly from the north, according to Clapham. The rest were primarily former civil servants, including local chief administrators and many teachers, either local ‘Big Men’ or their nominees. Sometimes they were relatively autonomous and with a radical stand, particularly the teachers and particularly in the last years of the empire. What was essential for MPs of the day was that they were deeply rooted in their local community.

They campaigned on promises of better infrastructure and social services, and pressed the authorities tirelessly over local grievances and demands. And they were accountable to their voters: usually more than two-thirds failed to be re-elected for not having kept their commitments, despite arguing that it was due to the incompetence and sluggishness of the imperial administration. In short, their position was ambiguous: they were independent, mainly because they came from outside any institutional hierarchy, but their role inserted them into the traditional power system, despite which they were overwhelmingly driven by local considerations. The local MPs, and their local patrons, therefore “tended to wield power by direct action in their home areas, rather than by influencing decisions at the centre”, said Clapham. A kind of democratic interaction, albeit framed by imperial absolutism, existed between the electors and those elected.

Communal democracy

Another democratic dimension of the period, whose features were suppressed by the Derg and even more so by the EPRDF regime, was very lively in the Oromia region and part of the south, and in the old Ethiopia, prior to the 1974 revolution.

In Oromia, there is the Gadaa leadership system, in which individuals climb the power structure according to their age as well as their merits. But it has two main limitations: rank depends on age and women are sidelined. Above all, the real power-holders were the neftegna (‘those who bear arms’), who were mostly connected to northern power structures. Gadaa played an important role in the governance of political, economic and social activities, and had a strong impact on religious life. It has vigorously resurfaced, at least rhetorically, since the recent turmoil and assertion of Oromo identity, although more as a cultural institution than a governing system.

In the northern Abyssinian Ethiopia prior to the 1974 revolution—essentially today’s Tigray and Amhara regions—the basic administrative and social entity, the parish, was largely governed by a kind of strong communal qualified democracy. A tacit deal existed in the parishes between the authorities and the people. As long as the latter paid taxes, maintained order through militia and sustained imperial forces when they visited, they could rule themselves with minimal interference from higher authorities.

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As I have noted before, the head of the parish – who was the lowest official of the state – was appointed from above. But he was commonly chosen from the ‘Big Men’ of the parish. A researcher who studied a village at that time noted, “A representative of the central power can govern only by building a legitimacy based on the creation of supporters through reciprocal obligation.” The appointed head of the parish had authority, but the power belonged to these Big Men. They had to compromise with each other.

The parishes were sovereign on matters as important as how the tax burden was spread between different households, with the amount fixed by the district for the parish as a whole. The parish also managed land distribution and resolved minor disputes. It even decided the land tenure system. People were elected to various committees. The symbol of this sovereignty was the village assembly, with decisions usually taken by consensus. But the decision-making process nevertheless reflected social stratification and patron-client relationships, in which the Big Men had the heaviest weight.

The paradox is that the national role of Parliament, the capacity of MPs in their district—now the wereda—and of the foremost personalities in the parishes—now the kebele—to manage their affairs were much higher under the imperial regime than under the present parliamentary system, which was formally adopted in 1995. This history could now resurface in several ways, either when postponed polls for kebele and wereda council seats are eventually held, or during the forthcoming national elections.

Top-down affair?

The national election is unlikely to be a strictly top-down nationwide affair like the past five polls. Local power is making itself felt. To take the example of the rural wereda of North Shoa that I have observed for fifteen years, last year the population rejected the administration leadership in a local uprising. That leadership was also deprived of the guidance they usually receive from above due to the general government disarray, leaving the wereda authorities disempowered and isolated.

Of the nineteen kebeles of this wereda, two have demanded incorporation into a neighbouring wereda. The community in five kebeles has managed to get their chair replaced. Thousands of similar situations have occurred in all regions, except Tigray. But they are largely spontaneous and unstructured: formal opposition parties are generally still weakly organised.

Following the general power vacuum after the discrediting of ruling party, and moved by an aspiration that has survived authoritarianism, the people in kebeles have asserted themselves, even in an informal way, mainly by refusing to carry out the few orders coming from on high. In this process, new local prominent personalities have emerged. Thus, a road is open for them to run as independent candidates, or with a very loose relationship with a party if they are members. Less than 1% of candidates were independent in regional and national elections in 2015.

Do the parties sense danger? The new electoral law requires an independent to produce 5,000 endorsement signatures from their constituency, which comprises 80,000 registered voters on average. For a party candidate, this figure is only 3,000, even though they can count on institutional support. In addition, there is no guarantee that independent candidates will get airtime on state media, contrary to the parties’ candidates.

Possible pathways

In the forthcoming elections, new and unpredictable factors will interact.  First and foremost, the recent democratic opening, primarily the return and release of opposition elements and a freer media. Second, the resurgence of this old local asset of democratic representation and accountability. But how will it play out?

A number of EPRDF local bosses have de facto aligned with ethnic opposition parties. This may be opportunistic, and a number of them will wait and see who looks like the winner—but this time, they will be concerned more with the local situation than with the national balance of power. Another question is whether the under-construction national party led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which is designed to transform the EPRDF coalition, will be able to re-establish a network of grassroots control.

In a political landscape overflowing with new and old parties covering almost the entire ideological spectrum, will a candidate be wise to count on their personal popularity only, or do they still need party support, as money and organisation remain crucial? All these factors add to the unpredictability of the forthcoming elections, including the possibility of a more promising process that regenerates local democracy.

Query or correction? Email us

Edited by William Davison, Julian Richards, and Jonah Wedekind

Published in partnership with openDemocracy

Main photo: An Ethiopian farmer near Holeta in Oromia region; July 31, 2014; William Davison

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

René Lefort

René has been writing about sub-Saharan Africa since the 1970s and reported on the region for French newspapers. He is now a researcher and publishes in academic titles such as The Journal of Modern African Studies.

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