Elections And The Opposition – Dessalegn Asfaw
Messay Kebede is correct when he points out that the EPRDF will not hold fair elections or even open up democratic space to any extent. This conclusion is not based on normative assumptions about the EPRDF being immoral, dishonest, or un-Ethiopian, etc. It is based on a purely rational analysis of the incentives in play. The fact is that the EPRDF does not have any incentive to open up democratic space. No political party or leader has the incentive to risk losing power. All political entities do their best, given their constraints, to hang on to or increase their power as much as possible. The EPRDF is no different.
Then why is the EPRDF interested in negotiations with the opposition or even holding elections in the first place? Even dictatorships can benefit from holding (fraudulent) elections. After all, the Soviet Union held elections. Mengistu Hailemariam held elections. The EPRDF held elections in 2008 in which they won 99% of the seats. Elections help dictatorships in various ways. They allow the ruling regime to bribe or punish local officials and others by offering them electoral seats or other positions. They help give those in power information about which parts of the country and which local leaders support them and which do not. They can help weaken the opposition – those afraid of what the regime will do to them if they do not cooperate or those willing to be a loyal opposition for a price will participate in the election. They also help either placate or frighten the public by showing ‘who’s boss’ – this is what 99% wins are all about.
The second reason why the EPRDF is holding elections is it wants to be seen as ‘democratic’. Donors want the EPRDF government to at least appear democratic so that they can more easily escape accusations of funding a dictatorship. The EPRDF wants the ‘democratic’ label in order to get more access to donor funding, to get better diplomatic leverage, and further weaken the opposition’s position.
Given this picture of reality – that the EPRDF is not going to willingly promote democracy – let us now examine the incentives of the opposition parties. Again, like any political entity, their goal is to gain power. In order for them to gain power in Ethiopia, there has to be democracy. These parties have no other means of ascending to power. Therefore, it is in the interests of these parties to fight for democracy and that is why they are part of the pro-democracy struggle.
In order to succeed in their fight for democracy, opposition parties have to cooperate and work together to achieve their common long-term interests. After all, no country in the world has been able to move from dictatorship to democracy with a fragmented pro-democracy movement. For a democracy movement to succeed, it has to have the support of a supermajority, not just a majority, of the population. Only a movement able to get the support of perhaps 80-90% of the population can be enough of a ‘people power’ threat that forces the EPRDF to open up democratic space for the sake of survival. In order to get such massive support, various forms of cooperation and coalition are necessary.
This means that individual parties such as Lidetu Ayalew’s EDP or Hailu Shawel’s AEUP simply cannot go it alone. They can neither maximize their own political power nor help bring about democracy in this way. Of course, the ‘opposing partner’ option that Messay mentions, which involves working with the ruling regime and trying to bring about slow change from within, is a viable strategy. Nothing wrong with that. However, one should not enter this strategy out of spite or an inability to cooperate with other parties or out of a mistaken assumption that this is the route to real power! This decision has to be taken as part of an overall, cooperative strategy of the pro-democracy movement as a whole. This does not mean that all the parties should do the same thing. It does not mean that they have to belong to a formal coalition, although that would make sense. However, it means that they do have to be on the same page and coordinate their strategies and they have to be seen by the public as cooperating, not infighting.
Given the rhetoric and the history of opposition parties and leaders in Ethiopia, I am not convinced that they are capable of coordinating strategies. In fact, I have seen no evidence that they even understand the necessity of cooperation. Even today, various leaders of the EDP, AEUP, and Medrek act as if they are still infected with ‘individualism’. Some of them seem even deluded enough to think that they alone could win the support of the entire population if only they were given the chance! They continue to publicly trade verbal jabs at each other. They do not seem to understand the extent to which such rhetoric turns off an already highly cynical public. They do not seem to have learned from the Kinijit experience.
In essence, many of the opposition parties in Ethiopia today, along with their leadership, are acting irrationally. That is, by not cooperating, they are acting against their interests, which is to fight for democracy as a means for gaining power. Meanwhile, the EPRDF continues doing a good job in protecting its interests, at least its short-term interests. This, in a nutshell, explains the state of Ethiopian politics today.