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Can Tigray’s election serve as a beacon of Ethiopian democracy?

Tigray’s election shows not just the possibility of holding polls during the pandemic, but also the possible emergence of political pluralism.

Tigrayans are voting today in a historic first autonomous regional election. The poll will offer voters the choice of five alternatives to represent them at the State Council.

The failure of the federal government to conduct the national election on schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated an already polarized political scene. Even more damaging was that regional elections were included in the federal postponement without regional governments’ consent.

The federal government had no constitutional basis to extend the general election nor has the power to prevent regional governments from conducting their own elections.

In rejecting this decision, Tigray regional state and its ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, decided to proceed with regional elections on schedule, despite warnings from Addis Ababa.

Several fundamental issues led to the current confrontation: lack of trust in the new leadership, Abiy’s leadership, lack of clear transitional framework, ideological disputes, and the unifying of the ruling coalition into a single party. However, alienation from political power, exclusion of the TPLF from major decisions and the issue of postponing the national elections exacerbated the confrontation between Prosperity Party and TPLF.

In Tigray, this discontent, confrontation, exclusion and sabotage were a signal for many Tigrayans to look inwards and focus on Tigray’s own national interests. The local election is seen by some as more than choosing parties to form a government. Rather, it is tied with the sacrifices paid for the principle of self-determination in the 17 years armed struggle against the Derg regime.

The TPLF is also showing some modest commitment to transform the political landscape in Tigray, while opposition parties are playing complementary roles. This has been manifested in mutual consensus, in which any attempt to sabotage or undermine the election and acts threatening Tigray are agreed to be unconstitutional and unjustifiable.

COVID-19 health measures in Mekele during today’s voting; submitted.

The election is a first for Tigray in terms of substance and process. As a process, the willingness of the Tigray government to negotiate with opposition parties on issues such as ratifying new electoral systems or procedures and a new code of ethics are very promising. Equally, the outcomes of this bargaining process have been encouraging. Sources have described  the way the election commission is chosen, the introduction of a mixed electoral system, and the fair division of financial and media resources among parties are groundbreaking.

In the upcoming election, opposition parties are expected to secure maybe a tenth of the 152 seats in the regional council, so the election has the potential to lead to a competitive multiparty system in the next election.

This progress in democratization in Tigray is remarkable considering the region’s poor democratic record, including deeply flawed elections, and single-party politics. In addition to expanding political space, there are also commendable efforts towards building democratic institutions.

Four opposition parties and the ruling TPLF are registered to participate. All parties have been campaigning, and are trying to reach voters through radio, television, social media, and print advertisements—a commendable effort considering most of parties were only recently organized.

Voters have several policy options to choose from, ranging from the TPLF’s long-established model of economic development, to National Congress of Great Tigray, or Baytona’s modified developmental model to Salsay Weyane’s and Adepa’s social democracy.

Baytona wants to implement the TPLF’s developmental state imbued with Baytoawi community-based, grass-roots democracy. Baytona Party leaders do not fundamentally differ from TPLF’s economic policy, but rather on its implementation. They vehemently criticize the implementation of the current development model in Tigray, including a top-down approach and democratic centralism, which they claim provides no room for autonomous decisions by lower administrators, nor public participation in policy formation.

Tigrayan voters head to the polls on 9 September; submitted

Salsay Weyane says Tigray’s lag in development and abject poverty can be attributed not only to TPLF’s poor leadership and bad governance, but to a lack of sound, contextually sensitive policies and strategies as well. They contend TPLF’s universalist ideological orientation lacks policies specifically designed to transform Tigray. Efforts to eradicate poverty, ensure fair distribution of resources, and achieve social justice are therefore still inadequate and far below popular expectations.

Salsay Weyane and the respective opposition parties agree  that Tigray is rich in potential, and boasts tourist sites, abundant natural resources, arable land, mineral deposits, and a strong labor force. All that remains is a formalization of policies that will better utilize these means of production and uplift Tigray through social democracy.

Asimba Democratic Party, or Adepa, also argues suffering in Tigray is due to lack of contextually sensitive policies and strategies, as well as a lack of good governance. It further contends TPLF-linked enterprises such as EFFORT’s stifle private sector development and plans to privatize its companies and state-owned enterprises.

Tigray Independence Party, or NATSNET, contends Ethiopia’s long-established historical cleavages and contradictions are irreconcilable. For them, Ethiopia is an empire-state created through the conquest and subjugation of distinct Ethiopian communities and assimilationist policies, and that Ethiopia itself is the main barrier to the realization of the Tigray cause. They argue Tigray can no longer achieve its developmental endeavors within Ethiopia and refute the long-held TPLF view that it can.

Five alternatives 
 Tigray People Liberation FrontSalsay Weyane TigrayBaytonaTigray Independence PartyAsimba Democratic Party
Goals and Positions• Protect existing federal system.
• Ethiopia’s problem are leadership and administration
• Developmental state
• Prosperous Ethiopia with Tigray in it
• New federal contract
• Ethiopia’s problems are structural
• Prosperous Tigray within Ethiopia.
• Bases claims on rich history and indigenous knowledge.
• Ethiopia’s problems are structural and irreconcilable
• Bayto System
• Independent Tigray nation state
• Bases claims on rich history and civilization.
• Ethiopia’s problems are structural and irreconcilable.
• Ethiopia cannot serve Tigray’s interests.
• Ensure security of Erob community.
• Ethiopia’s problems are leadership and administration
• Inclusive development.
Ideology • Revolutionary democracy• Social democracy• Developmental State• Nationalism • Social Democracy
Political leanings• Pragmatist
• Nationalist party• Nationalist party • Bold nationalist party • Universalist
Political Solution• Democratic unity• Loose federation• Confederation • Independence • Democracy
Social base• Broad based, mainly low-income• Academia but can expand• Across Tigray• Academia and youth• Erob.

Unlike TPLF, Salsay Weyane and Baytona see the problems as deep-rooted structural ones that are not easily solved.TPLF believes Ethiopia is walking away from rapid economic development, becoming a hegemonic regional power, and allowing greater regional autonomy, and heading deeper into a political crisis that threatens state collapse. However, they reduce this crisis to leadership and governance problems, and as a condition that can be reversed in favor of Ethiopian nations, nationalities and peoples through ensuring unity in diversity.

However, the ability to renegotiate the constitution remains open. Salsay Weyane seeks a new contract on constitution and the federal structure. This would grant regional states more powers through devolution and grant minorities a veto power guaranteeing safety from majoritarian tyranny in the federal houses in what they call “New Deal, New Chapter”. Alternatively, Baytona wants a confederal arrangement, far beyond a loose federation.

Unlike TPLF, Salsay Weyane, Baytona, and Adepa, TIP all explain Ethiopia’s problem as long-established and that the historical cleavages and contradictions are irreconcilable. While TIP wants secession, TPLF, Salsay Weyane, and Baytona claim Tigray does not fulfil the structural preconditions that are essential for statehood.

Regarding TPLF, their prognosis of leadership and governance problems  runs up against their nearly 30-years of leadership at the federal level. How and why has Tigray suffered from such hunger and poverty despite being rich in natural resources such as precious metals and minerals? Why is Tigray threatened from the center after decades of fighting for survival and self-determination?

For Baytona and Salsay Weyane, the question is that by becoming a nationalist and regionalist party and continuing as a member of the Ethiopian federation, how can the dream of a more prosperous and greater Tigray be realized without holding power at the federal level?

For Baytona, how feasible is the idea of forming a confederation, given the centralist tendencies of the federal government?

Regarding TIP, do studies demonstrate that Tigray fulfils the requirements for statehood? Would an independent Tigray be able to sufficiently feed millions of Tigrayans? Are calls for mobilization and secession motivated by existential threat, or nationalist emotion?

These questions demonstrate the depth of Ethiopia’s political problems. Existing tensions and confrontations between and within regional governments are reflections of structural contradictions embedded in the imperial expansion, failed state formation, and failed nation-building processes that Ethiopia has experienced.

A successful election in Tigray will demonstrate the possibility of conducting a general election in Ethiopia, despite the pandemic. Given the widespread protests and growing unrest in various parts of the country, Tigray could be seen as a beacon of autonomy for other regions, and could cause others to consider conducting their own self-facilitated elections. This could also create pressure on the federal government to re-think negotiations and ultimately ease the tense political situation in the country.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Editors: Henry Levinson, William Davison

Main photo: A Tigrayan voter in Mekele on 9 September; submitted.

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About the author

Abreha Gebrearegawi Hagos

Abreha is a senior lecturer at Mekelle University with an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies and BA in Civics and Ethics. His recent research topics includes migration, command posts, and conflict resolution, especially in Gambella.

8 Comments

  • The joke election ended up with TPLF winning all 152 contested seats and all remaining 38 seats if the election law is followed. How is that?

  • Tigray is far from Addis Ababa so Tigray can safely hold an election without fear of Coronavirus spread. The major place where Coronavirus is at high risk is Addis Ethiopian Airlines just added new frequent flyers destination to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Why Ethiopian Airlines make it a habit to fly to highly CoronaVirus infected destinations where other Airlines avoid is something Ethiopians especially Addis Ababa residents need to find out. Currently Brazil got 4.2 million (4,200,000) Covid-19 infections and 129,000 deaths with the second highest number of Coronavirus infection in the world , thus most international airlines avoiding Sao Paullo because it got failed health care system currently with close to 900,000 Covid-19 infections and close to 32,000 deaths just in Sao Paulo , making it the riskiest destination for any plane to take its employees and frequent flyers to. For Brazil’s poor the pandemic is not over same as it will not be over for Ethiopia’s poor if Ethiopian Airlines keeps flying back and forth to Sao Paulo.

    https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/19/for-brazils-poor-the-pandemic-is-far-from-over/

    MSF › coronavirus-covid-19-night…
    Coronavirus COVID-19 nightmare continues in Brazil | MSF

    Worldometers.info › country › brazil
    Brazil Coronavirus: 4,199,332 Cases and 128,653 Deaths – Worldometer

  • They say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, and “you can’t fix stupid”, either. No Tigray’s election cannot be a “beacon of democracy” BUT IT IS A WARNING TO THE REST OF ETHIOPIA, NOT TO MAKE A MOCKERY OUT OF DEMOCRACY!!!

    1) TPLF is at it once again. It cooked the books, arbitrarily generated an additional 32 seats but a priori locked 80% of its control before the first ballot was even cast. How shameful. Come on TPLF cadres, when are you going to learn the abc of representative democracy? When are you going to learn to abide by your own flawed constitution?

    2)The election was unconstitutional. It was rigged by design and done for showmanship, for propaganda and for disrupting and creating chaos. The concept of serving the people is alien to the ears of TPLF.

    3)Also, now that TPLF has shown once again that its iron fist and grips will not let the people of TIGRAY to live free, it cannot any longer deflect the suffering, poverty and inequality in Tigray to the rest of Ethiopia. The people of Tigray need to look straight in the face of TPLFites and demand answers for all the ills in Tigray from the ones to be masters and lords over all children, men and women in Tigray- TPLF!!!

  • This is unbelievable . Its a gold mine of ironues, contradictions, jokes and an outright comical relief. The TPLF cabal
    in the hideout of its comfort zone suddenly changed hearts and running democratic elections. They are a born-again enlightened pro-democracy or pro bono constitutionalists. They became defenders of the rights of nationalities and the activists for rights of all the damned and all the animal planet beasts? Now they are supposedly undisputed beacon of great black hope and so on. Even more Surprisingly, all this come after 30 years of hard negations, and sabotages against these same ideas and noble principles. Worest even, a supposedly a learned man with fancy modern degrees is peddling hard these this same points, messages and talking the to the public domain as genuine and believable and worthy story to tell. No need to go further into the rest of tother details as the next commentator described it all . Next please!. I early need a coffee break now to digest this whole thing and the new political phenomenon..

  • Fact 1: The whole world knows that the TPLF dominated EPRDF declared to have won 100% of the 547 Federal parliament seats back in 2015. Only to have been removed 3 years later by the very same people who “gave” EPRDF their mandate.

    Fact 2. The TPLF was removed from its dominant position at the Federal level and fled to Mekele where it has been operating from since 2018. Out of shame and for fear of the same fate, the TPLF changed the Tigray regional state constitution to add 38 more seats changing the total regional parliamentary seats from 152 to 190. All of the previously existing 152 seats were held by TPLF.

    Fact 3. The TPLF leaders have learned what happened to them at the Federal level when they controlled 100% of the parliamentary seats. So,the TPLF guaranteed 20% of the total regional parliament seats (i.e the newly added 38 seats) to the so called opposition parties to avoid consequences of controlling 100% of the seats. However, as the old adage that goes ” old habits die hard”, the TPLF felt insecure to give up the 20% seats to serious political parties. For that reason,TPLF hatched new political parties that barely differ from it. Even with the newly formed parties, TPLF made sure that they will not have access out side of the cities and towns. The insecurity of TPLF is like no other.

    Fact 4. None of the TPLF leaders had set foot while they were holding Federal positions and until they were removed from their Federal offices. In addition, everyone of them sent their adult children to Europe and America to enjoy life with the money they (leaders) looted while they were holding Federal positions. Burning in anger and grudge for losing their power, these callous TPLF leaders are brandishing RPGs and machine guns provoking the Federal government to start war. In so doing they are trying to satisfy their own hunger for power at the expense of innocent Tigrayan youth while their own children at enjoying life in Europe and America.

    Fact 5. The election will never change anything on the ground. It happened because the TPLF wanted war with the Federal government. The poor people of Tigray will continue suffering at the hands of their own children post election as if nothing happened. So, the election was frivolous.

    Fact 6. The author of the piece didn’t tell his readers about other political parties that chose not to participate in the election and their reasons for reaching that decision. This can be construed as deliberate omission and to benefit the TPLF. Portraying the so called opposition parties as serious challengers is distorting facts and hence disingenuous.

    Fact 7. The participant parties are formed by jobless college graduates in search of means of living. Their parties are not considered political parties even by TPLF standards. For instance, Sebhat Nega, the king maker of TPLF, called them “groups of job seekers not political parties” via Awramba Times and Debretsion Gebremichael, the chairman of TPLF, said, ” we need these political parties and we know they will vote for TPLF” via Tigray TV. While all of this information was available to the author he chose not to say anything about them.

    Overall, I believe the author of the piece should have included at least the aforementioned facts in one form or another.

  • If there is a party that stands to take both Tigray and ethnic federalism out of Ethiopia, vote for that. Let the rest of Ethiopia determine what is good for them without the constant clamor of “nationalities and past grievance”. We will miss the legacy of Axum and Adwa but it is not worth keeping at the moment. Their leaders have taken more than what they’ve provided to Ethiopia.

  • The Tigray election has been a beacon of democracy for the past three decades. Unlike other regions only Tigray had been able to live in a world class democratic system since TPLF liberated Ethiopia in the early 1990’s. The others were not able to loose and more be on they had sore loosers running for election.

    Not once the election results had been contested in Tigray since the 1990’s. The reason why Tegaru defeated Kinijit , ginbot7 Shabiya etc… in war or in election is because Tegaru elect our leaders democratically since the 1990’s who serve the people elect them fully.

  • Read the constitution man…while the HOF doesn’t have the power to extend regional councils’ mandate, regions don’t have the right to conduct any type of election, only the NEBE does. TPLF is not being a constitutionalist, it’s doing this to foment troubles and when the national election comes up it will use this and say I’ve already conducted an election.
    The artice it uses to justify holding elections — Article 39 — doesn’t say anything about elections and it is — again — using the power it doesn’t have — interpretation of the consititution — to say self-determination means election.
    Basically bullshitting.

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