by the Strathink Editorial Team
This week the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF) voted for Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister following the resignation of Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn. Dr. Abiy Ahmed leads the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), one of the four parties of the Front. In a parliamentary system, the governing party elects the country’s Prime Minister.
The election of Dr. Abiy is significant for a number of reasons. First, Dr. Abiy is Ethiopia’s first Oromo Prime Minister. For the past several years, Oromia has been a hotspot of conflict where violent protests have resulted in death and destruction of property. As Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy will have to provide the leadership needed to address the problems of Oromia—problems that are widespread throughout Ethiopia but exacerbated by historical grievances of domination and oppression.
By electing a Prime Minister from the OPDO, the party is acknowledging the perception of marginalization by the Oromo community. At the same time, the new Prime Minister is charged with representing the interests of all of Ethiopia’s nations, nationalities and peoples. It will be a delicate balancing act fraught with sensitivities.
Second, the election of Dr. Abiy as Prime Minister has perhaps shaken the perception that the EPRDF is a monolithic party controlled by the Tigrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF). Instead, reports about the meeting highlighted the intense debate and the voting preferences of party members. The process was so ordinary as to be extraordinary given the widely held perception of one party’s domination.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn labored under the false narrative of being a puppet. Yet, it was never clear how democratic centrism, a fundamental principle of the EPRDF, can co-exist with accusations of being controlled by one party in the Front. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was accused of being authoritarian. Yet, in 2000/2001, there was a split in the TPLF that challenged the leadership of Prime Minister Meles and came close to succeeding.
Although dissent within the party may have narrowed over the last decade or so, the competing principles of democratic centrism and and hegemony cannot exist at the same time in the same space.
Third, the election of Dr. Abiy signifies a first real step in the change needed to attack Ethiopia’s seemingly intractable problems. These problems were enumerated in the January 2, 2018 EPRDF Executive Council Statement. In the statement, the EPRDF cited a number of failings that have undermined public confidence in the party’s ability to lead. These failings include: erosion of the party’s internal democratic culture; abuse of power; opportunism; lack of discipline among leaders in decision-making; and the inability to expand political space.
These weaknesses in the party’s leadership have resulted in the public’s frustration and loss of trust—most dramatically played out for several years now in a show of violence in Oromia and the Amhara region.
Ethiopia is in a battle now to reclaim the democratic space that opened up immediately preceding the 2005 election. At no other time in Ethiopia’s long history had democracy been a feature of Ethiopian political life.. Televisions and radios throughout the country broadcast open debates between the governing party and the opposition. Millions of voters stood in line on Election Day to cast their ballots for their candidate.
Democracy wilted when the opposition parties made the fatal mistake of refusing to take their seats in the parliament. The government, in response to street violence to take the government by force, jailed opposition party leaders and tried them in court. The president pardoned the leaders and they were released. In subsequent elections, in the absence of a credible and viable opposition, the EPRDF was in the unenviable situation of taking all the seats in parliament.
In a public opinion poll published by Addis Fortune, almost 60% of the respondents gave a favorable view of Dr. Abiy’s election. This provides the government with some of the space it needs to tackle the serious problems that threaten the integrity of the EPRDF and the gains made by the country during the last 26 years.
Now the real work of “deep renewal” begins.
Just how the government under Prime Minister Abiy will tackle the problems cited in the January 3 Executive Council Statement—erosion of the party’s internal democratic culture; abuse of power; opportunism; lack of discipline among leaders in decision-making; and the inability to expand political space—remains a big question mark.
For example, Ethiopian anti-corruption law is primarily contained in The Revised Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission Establishment Proclamation and the Revised Anti-Corruption Law which criminalize major forms of corruption including active and passive bribery, bribing a foreign official, and money laundering. The Commission issues an annual report yet, as a federal structure, the regions have their own anti-corruption institutions. Will the public accept the commission’s annual report on corruption as accurate, transparent and comprehensive? Will the report result in criminal prosecutions? Will the process be perceived as legitimate or politically motivated as far as who is prosecuted and who is not?
The vibrancy of the democratic process in electing the new Prime Minister was a transparent step in addressing the erosion of the party’s internal democratic culture. What role will the new Prime Minister play in maintaining the robustness of the internal debate? Equally important is how the new Prime Minister projects the democratic process within the EPRDF to the general public. For too long now and becoming more and more dangerous, the narrative of one-party domination within the party has created a perilous challenge to peace and security. This narrative, if strengthened, can only result in violence and bloodshed.
The Executive Council statement notes the government’s inability to expand political space. This is a particularly vexing problem given the current structure of the government. How will the party include more voices within the current government structure?
Last year the EPRDF met with 15 opposition parties to negotiate election rules. The result was an agreement for a mixed-member system where 80 percent of the vote will be allotted to the existing simple majority while the remaining 20 percent is allotted to proportional representation. This replaces the strictly “first past the post” system that gave the EPRDF virtually all of the parliamentary seats in the 2015 election. The total number of seats is projected to grow by 110 seats, bringing the total seats to 657.
Will this new system succeed in broadening representation of different views and widen the political space?
Allowing greater press freedom is certainly an area that will bring more voices into the political process. How will the new Prime Minister balance press freedom with the dangerous and unfortunate hate speech that has become business as usual on social media? In a country where it is sometimes impossible to separate journalism from the inflammatory rhetoric of opposition, what are the metrics that will distinguish legitimate critical journalism from the political rhetoric that is crossing the line into inciting ethnic hatred?
These are just some of the questions that pose serious challenges to the government’s efforts at “deep renewal.”
We reprint this photo of the new Prime Minister and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. It is a powerful visual image of the peaceful transfer of power that took place this week. In his inaugural speech, the Prime Minister said:
This transfer of power is indicative of two main truths. On the one hand, it is indicative of the fact that we have laid the foundations for a durable and all-inclusive constitutional order; on the other hand, it is indicative of the fact that we are building a system that walks at part with the country’s political, economic, and social conditions and which is governed by the will of the people, that which makes the people its master and serves them accordingly.
The Prime Minister notes, “building a democratic system demands listening to each other.” This truth about creating a political culture based on respect for differing opinions is at the core of nation building. This means that the government must listen to the people. It also means that the people must listen to the government. Too much of current political discourse is based on rumors, innuendos and outright lies.
There is an ebb and flow to democracy. “Deep renewal” requires a commitment both from the government and the people. Let this photo of the peaceful transfer of power remind everyone of how far Ethiopia has come—a long way from where power came from the barrel of a gun.