By S. Tesemma
Ethiopia is well and truly in a transitional phase from an autocratic system to a pluralist democracy. A mood of change has engulfed the nation most notably since the Ethio-Eritrean war (1998-2000). Perhaps the only good outcome of that disastrous and futile war was its service as a catalyst to galvanise pan-Ethiopian nationalism, civic pride and grass root activism as exemplified in the movement of Gash Aberra Molla and the Yichalal team spirit of the Ethiopian athletes both of which commanded respect and huge following.
Civic societies are emerging gradually and their sobering impact is being felt already. The private media, still nascent and faltering, is beginning to show signs of maturity. Multiethnic opposition parties have emerged, and they are learning how to iron out differences to merge or form workable coalitions. Institutions and mass organisations can now play host to facilitate debate and dialogue. Politicians are being forced to abandon the old leftist culture of denouncing opponents on trumped up charges, and instead to learn the habit of discussing issues and answering questions put to them by well-informed citizens. The ruling party, exposed and fractured by the war, besieged by internal and external pressure is induced to make administrative reforms and to inch its ways towards a more tolerant and transparent system of governance. Above all a system of nationwide periodic parliamentary election is taking root. It is also becoming more pluralist, transparent and fair.
These are all gains, early signs or blossoming buds of a democratic culture. The main beneficiaries are the Ethiopian people, mostly in urban areas. Increasingly they have better chance to be well informed, to ask questions, to express their wish and aspirations through debates, rallies and ultimately the ballot box. Increasingly they are learning to challenge arbitrary and unlawful decisions of the ruling party through the courts even when they know too well that the judiciary is too subservient to the executive branch of the state.
However, it should be emphasised from the outset that these gains are in their infancy. They are fragile. They need protection so that the democratisation process continues irreversibly. Politicians both in the ruling party and the opposition have historic responsibilities not to jeopardise them. The danger is too real in view of their well known propensities to resort to age old tricks, if the democratisation process works against their immediate interest. The post election tension amplifies this danger.
Presently the ruling party and the opposition are trading accusations. Both sides have been completely surprised, an element which presumably explains, at least in part, their rather rash and erratic post-election behaviour. The reasons for their surprise were different though: for the EPRDF it must have been the extent of defeat in urban areas; for the CUD and UEDF on the other hand it appears to be the extent of support not just in major urban centres, but also in rural and semi-urban constituencies in Amhara, Oromiya and SNNP. The dramatic outcome seems to have caused a knee jerk reaction from the ruling party, while it appears to have buoyed the anticipation of the opposition from becoming a credible parliamentary opposition to one of forming a coalition government.
Confident of winning most rural constituencies, and hence forming at least a government of comfortable majority, the EPRDF appeared to be unconcerned, at least initially, about the possibility and consequences of considerable loss of seats in urban constituencies. A lot was going on for the party. The economy is recovering from the consequences of the cursed war; some reforms of the civil service are being felt and appreciated; competent and pragmatic technocrats such as Girma Birru and Arkebe Oqubai have been busy transforming ministerial departments and the capital's administration, thereby changing not only the streets but also the public mood of the stakeholders; major achievements in the construction of roads, schools and clinics throughout the nation are winning the approval of the populous, while the changes in investment policies now looks to begin delivering dividends in attracting direct investment from foreigners as well as Ethiopians residing overseas.
Another source of confidence for the ruling party must have been the state of the opposition. The opposition was fragmented, and until the last four months in the run up to the election all efforts to form unity or a coalition for concerted action had ended up in disappointment. What could come out of coalitions which were just taking shape at the beginning of hustings? Like many observers the EPRDF must have thought that the opposition groups could not be seen as credible challengers.
It was from such background that the ruling party exuded confidence to allow a relatively more open and fair election campaign. Brimmed with certainty of beating the opposition fairly and squarely, they were willing to run the election under international observation, minus the notorious pro-democracy American institutions whom they suspected as prime movers and shakers of 'coloured revolutions' in several countries of eastern Europe, central Asia and Latin America. But, were their assessments unreasonable or wrong? Could their confidence be seen as based on misinterpretations of reality?
Non-partisan answers to the above questions can only be ambivalent. Yes, the EPRDF have a degree of success along the assessment outlined above. However, the problem was not in the veracity of what they reckoned, but rather in what they did not:
* they did not reckon the indignation people still feel at the perception of betrayal of Ethiopian interest in the 'settlement' of the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict, of being 'winner' in the battlefront, only to become loser in the arbitration;
* they did not reckon the sense of frustration among the urban poor, the unemployed and underemployed, the sick and dying from HIV/AIDS related diseases;
* they did not reckon the despair among the rural poor eking out a living from plots of land which are fragmenting, shrinking and depleting in fertility;
* they did not reckon the anger of the entrepreneurial class whose ambitions for self and for the good of the national economy are blocked by corruption, party-affiliated businesses, and thousands of inept pseudo-Marxist cadres hostile to private enterprise;
* they did not reckon the resentment against their party owing to its cadres proverbial arrogance lashing out insulting remarks in response to public criticisms and legitimate grievances;
* they did not reckon that people remember the hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters who were killed in the recent past by their forces in broad day light in the capital, in Oromia and other regions;
* they did not reckon many such instances of injustice they dished out to the people and their own dissidents.
Boy were they wrong in underestimating the feelings of the people!
Viewed from the point of raw feelings of the people, the votes cast at the ballot box are expressions of protest. For this reason alone it would be wrong for the opposition parties to interpret the results of the urban ballot as votes of confidence in them. The opposition are an unknown quantity. They do not have track records of administration; nor do they have unified organisations comparable in size or resources to that of the ruling party. Whether the early success of their election campaign could be repeated in running city administrations and in consolidating their organisational unity remain to be seen. Such being the circumstances interpreting the votes cast for them as votes of confidence would be folly.
It would also be equally wrong for the ruling party to interpret the urban votes as mere expressions of anti-TPLF, anti-Tigaru sentiments. Two simple facts would suffice to show its fallacy. With the exception of the mayor of Addis, most or all notable candidates booted out were members of the ANDM or other affiliates of the EPRDF. The latter lost for being extremely unpopular, either for being incompetent or insolent, or both. One has only to remember the public statements, disdainful attitudes of Gennet Zewdie and Dawit Yohannes as an example to find out why they were/are unpopular. The mayor on the other hand is by far an exception, and he lost in the election for being a member of the unpopular TPLF/EPRDF, not for being ethnic Tigrawi. Only those with a jaundiced ethno-centric view could attribute the defeat to his ethnic background. While this article is being written, the rumour is that bills were posted in various places in Addis expressing public love and respect for the outgoing mayor, but that he had to go for belonging to the said organisations.
Secondly voting against TPLF/EPRDF does not mean voting against ethnic Tegaru or any other ethnic group for that matter. The view that TPLF is one and the same as the Tegaru is a self-serving view of ethnic nationalists who want to retain the monopoly of power they enjoyed over their ethnic community, a power ill gotten in the first place.
Given the assessment outlined above, this article likes to argue that the gains of democratisation achieved so far will be better insured if the final outcome of the election returns the EPRDF to power whilst giving the opposition parties over a third of the parliamentary seats, the number required to check any excesses of the majority. Such an outcome will provide a win-win scenario and bodes well for all concerned, most of all for the Ethiopian people. The ruling party with reduced majority will be more accountable, and will be forced to learn the wisdom of listening and ruling by consensus and persuasion. Taking advantage of this renewed chance it may try to speed up current reforms and developmental projects. Humbled by the current punishing results, it may also demand, hopefully, from its cadres some degree of honesty and decency whilst holding public offices; it may also opt to practice meritocracy rather than ethnic cronyism in making political appointments. In future free, fair and transparent elections, it can no longer count on ethnic loyalty, only on what it actually delivers and how it behaves towards the nation as a whole.
On the other hand, the said scenario will provide ample opportunities for the opposition to acquire parliamentary and administrative experience, major deficits on their part. Over the next five years they will also have time to consolidate the current organisational arrangements or transform themselves into one or two nationwide parties. Most importantly, taking advantage of the legitimacy and opportunities their formidable parliamentary positions provide, they can work assiduously to establish themselves among the rural poor. Knowing too well that for the foreseeable future forming a government through elections in Ethiopia will depend on winning the votes of the rural constituencies, they need to end the era in which the ruling party could regard these as its exclusive domain. Huge task is cut out for them, and they need to be busy to use the time and resources now available to them judiciously.
As things stand, the opposition parties are not ready yet to govern the entire country. Ethiopia can't afford to suffer from instability or administrative paralysis from infighting or interminable negotiations that are likely to follow from coalitions hastily formed from disparate groups of mainly young and inexperienced organisations. The opposition need time and opportunity to prove to themselves and the people who elected them that they constitute a formidable parliamentary opposition, that they have the discipline and commitment required to rule a huge diverse nation, and that they could translate their policies and promises into actions where they control city or zonal administrations.
It is time for the opposition to pinch themselves to wake up to the reality of their own circumstances and that of their country. It is time to remember the proverb 'kebero besew ij yamir, siyzut yadenagir' ('enjoying the sound of a drum is one thing, playing it another'). Ethiopia's stability, economic development and democratic future are all at stake. They should have the wisdom to see that it is in their best interest and that of Ethiopia, the country they love passionately, if they are contented with forming a formidable parliamentary opposition and urban administrations. The people have offered them unprecedented opportunity, with promises for more in coming elections. To squander them would not only be foolish but unforgivable.